What is the Universal Mind?

I once heard Tsoknyi Rinpoche comment that terms for the unconditional – such as “Buddha nature” or “unborn awareness” – need to be updated from time to time. Even if we know what they mean (we know only in moments), because of repetition they may cease to move us, become clichés, get stale. There is no need to stick to the same spiritual terms we have always used – not only can they become worn out, they also can back us into narrow or even intolerant corners.

In his recently published book, The Intelligent Heart, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche uses the term “universal mind” to refer to Buddha nature. When I came across universal mind in my reading of his book, I felt strangely liberated. It was a term I could feel affection for, and I loved its sweeping inclusion of everything (which any term for the absolute is meant to do). Certainly this is the spirit Kongtrul Rinpoche intended for the term: that it speak to the heart.

Kongtrul Rinpoche contrasts universal mind to “small mind,” his term for the self-clinging, self-identified part of ourselves; the place we typically inhabit that is unable to truly empathize with others, develop compassion and see the universality of consciousness. The compact simplicity of small mind makes it easily grasped, and blunt. Shunrhu Suzuki-roshi also used small mind, which he contrasted to “big mind,” his term for unborn awareness, and one that to my ear evokes universal mind.

There is a saying from the lojong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism: Drive all blames into one. The direction for “blame” is the small mind, our ego, our tendency to be selfish. More than one teacher has commented that this saying is universal to all schools of Buddhism, since overcoming ego is what Buddhism is all about. But it is clear that this universality is common to the essence of all spiritual traditions. Consider this quote from the American Christian mystic Joel Goldsmith:

She who has found her inner self realizes that she is one with all men/women, animals and things. She knows now that what affects one touches all. The universality of this truth is found in all scripture.

In order to avoid our myopic tendencies, besides exposing ourselves to a variety of terms for the unconditional, it is necessary to expose ourselves to other spiritual traditions as well. A close reading of Joel Goldsmith’s little-known classic, The Infinite Way, has shown me how identical his mystic Christian path is to Buddhism; not identical in all methods and certainly not is all words, but in spirit and ultimate destination. Goldsmith speaks of “Christ consciousness.” How different is Christ consciousness from Buddha nature? Goldsmith, needless to say, also uses the word “God.” In reading the book, one might be uncomfortable encountering the word God. But for a Buddhist, if one tries using the word “awareness” instead of God, in many instances the meaning becomes familiar and easily identified with.

In the Buddhist path, the middle way – a name for Buddhism itself – is contrasted to the two extremes that veer from the middle way: nihilism and eternalism/theism. In this regard, Christianity is typically labeled a theistic religion. In the case of contemplative Christianity (the practicing essence of Christianity,) this label is misleading. Buddhism posits that the theistic belief in an external savior is both extreme and false. But in Goldsmith’s view, and other contemplative traditions, there is no notion that we will be saved from outside. The work must be done oneself, and the realization is an inner one.

In these days of division and widespread intolerance, it is crucial that all of us practicing the Buddhist path become spiritually sophisticated: that we become multi-cultural and “multi-spiritual”; not only tolerant but actively interested in other. The words we use and the knowledge we have of other traditions is a key.

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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.

What is “Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior”? Part I

As many no doubt know, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the shambhalaWarrior is not an idea but a book, authored by Chogyam Trungpa. In the past three decades (first published in 1984) it has no doubt sold as well or better than any spiritual book on the market. Amazon has 178 reviews of the book online – nearly all praise it for its wisdom, practicality, and for the fact that it is not attached to a particular spiritual tradition. As one reviewer put it, “This is Wisdom that anybody could practice anywhere, at any time. I am awed by (Trungpa’s) subtlety, poetry and delicacy of touch.”

As a student of Chogyam Trungpa since 1976, I know a good deal of what went into making the book, and how much Chogyam Trungpa intended Shambhala to be as secular as it was spiritual. By “secular” he meant no division between the sacred and the so-called profane; by “spiritual” he meant simply the human capacity for goodness.

In 1997, Chogyam Trungpa and his students developed a program called Shambhala Training. Heretofore, Trungpa’s message had been Vajrayana Buddhism and all his students were Buddhists or becoming-Buddhists. With Shambhala Training he (and we) taught meditation as a secular path available to anyone. For many years the participants of Shambhala Training were primarily Buddhists, many of them Trungpa’s own students (some of whom took the program reluctantly). Slowly this began to change.

By the early 1980s the program attracted more and more of the public at large. Trungpa would come to Berkeley – where I was the “resident director” of the program – on an annual basis to teach Shambhala Training. So interested was Trungpa in the general public, these “non-Buddhists,” that he would often ask me how many were taking the program. When I’d answer, “Quite a few,” he would smile with a kind of glee.

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior was compiled and edited from talks Chogyam Trungpa initially gave to his students, who then went on to share them with the public through Shambhala Training. Shambhala Training is still being offered through Shambhala International, the organization Chogyam Trungpa founded. The Shambhala message is not confined though to people who have taken Shambhala Training, but is one that also circulates through the book. It is common for one reader to recommend it to another, and so on — one reviewer wrote, “I’ve purchased this book seven times and consistently give it away.” Like the word-of-mouth for a good movie, the book proliferates. Just last week in a coffee shop I frequent, I saw a young man reading it, diligently taking notes.

The foundational message of Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior is that human beings (and all beings, all phenomena) possess basic goodness. Basic goodness is found at the basis of our being as something unconditional. In Tibetan Buddhist terms, Chogyam Trungpa was considered a “terton,” someone able to receive (rather than author) “hidden teachings” meant for this time. The Shambhala books open with these passages from his “terma”:

From the great cosmic mirrorgesar-thagha-2
Without beginning or end,

Human society became manifest.

At that time liberation and confusion arose.

When fear and doubt occurred

Towards the confidence which is primordially free,

Countless multitudes of cowards arose.

When the confidence which is primordially free

Was followed and delighted in,

Countless multitudes of Warriors arose…

The “cosmic mirror” is primordial; something, in Trungpa’s words “not caused by any circumstances.” Through meditation, one glimpses this, an awareness that is the basis of all experience but that, in itself, it is unchanged by experience. If two men fight in front of a mirror, the mirror reflects the fight but is not affected by it. Trunpga described how to relate to the cosmic mirror this way: “The way to look back and experience the state of being of the cosmic mirror is simply to relax.”

What could be more human, more gentle, more needed than to simply relax? This is also the instructions of Mahamudra and Maha Ati, the highest stages of meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist path. Likewise, the experience of God could be seen as ultimate relaxation, a letting go of control but also a awareness of the divine; “Not my will, but thine.” In foregoing spiritual labels, the Shambhala Teachings embrace all traditions – a fearless stance in itself.
To be continued in Part Two.

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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.

What is the Subtle Body?

This is the second of five periodic articles reviewing some of the icon
“best books on mediation.” Here, we take up an examination of “the subtle body” through reviewing the book, Training the Wisdom Body by Rose Taylor Goldfield. Goldfield is a student of the Tibetan teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, who developed lujong—a Tibetan yoga intended to enhance one’s life and meditation, and the subject of this book—and brought it to his students in the West. Long restricted to those who’ve studied with the Khenpo—or those who’ve studied with his close students—Goldfield was encouraged to now make lujong available to anyone.

Training the Wisdom Body is a manual for understanding the practice of lujong that can be practiced on a “conventional” or “esoteric” level – the book prepares us to practice lujong on latter level, which requires understanding some of the fundamentals of Vajrayana Buddhism, which Training the Wisdom Body offers in an extraordinarily concise and clear fashion; those parts alone makes the book worth having, and another reason why this is such a valuable book for meditators.

It wasn’t long ago that the esoteric was truly that, something “intended for or understood by only a small number of people.” Back in the 1960s and early 70s, “esoteric bookshops” were pretty much the only outlet for books on Buddhism, Vedanta, Taoism or the I Ching. Before the arrival of Tibetan rinpoches, Hindu yogis or Christian contemplatives, essentially the only way to learn about the esoteric was to read about it, a limited vehicle indeed (though not necessarily now). The subtle body is spoken of through a host of esoteric names, such as “the most sacred body” or the “true and genuine body” in Sufism; the “diamond” or “rainbow” body in the Vajrayana. Diagrams, such as Hindu yantras or Tibetan tankas illustrate the subtle body through exotic diagrams of the chakra system or deities, sometimes with multiple heads or arms.

Now, through yoga studios, meditation halls, online classes CD sets and of course the hundreds of books that are published every year, the esoteric is far less so and experience of the subtle body is extensive.

silhouette-1304141_1920What is the subtle body?

The answer turns out to be both simple to understand and possible to be readily experienced. Actually, the subtle body is one of three “bodies” we consist of: the physical body, the “body” of our mind, and the subtle body. Goldfield describes the subtle body as, “our felt experience that lies somewhere between the physical body and the mind. We connect to the subtle body when we open to feelings, sensations and patterns of energy within the physical body.”

Felt experience is the key to glimpsing the subtle body, since as long as we are lost in discursive thought—and especially our story lines—we are absent to felt experience. The feelings of the subtle body are indeed more subtle than how we typically respond when asked: I’m feeling afraid, hurt, angry, jealous or passionate. These emotionally-based feelings are based on storylines and the heightened energy of being triggered, whereas the subtle body communicates itself through bodily feelings. In truth, even if our anger is perpetuated through storyline, below the anger are subtle bodily sensations: restrictions, burning energy, perhaps a quivering in our heart center. Goldfield gives a simple method for encountering these underlying feelings, one that anyone can try:

“Try just feeling into your heart area; simply observe whatever sensation you find there. As you feel into, see if the sensation changes in any ways. Is the sensation heavy or light? Does if move, or does is seem stuck and solid? Is there a color, pattern, or image associate with this sensation… What is your felt internal landscape? If you do not feel anything, feel into that nothingness… that too is a felt experience.”

A significant aspect of the subtle body is that if we feel deeply into it (such as through lying-down meditations for thirty minutes or an hour, using breath to bring us into our body and having the eyes closed to enhance the “inner” exploration) we find that there is seemingly nothing but the subtle body; that our so-called physical body phenomenologically is nothing other than a constellation of ever changing subtle sensation (even pain, in essence, is a subtle sensation, intense but shifting, unable to be located or identified for long, even as “pain.”)

Goldfield summarizes the recommended view of the three bodies for practicing lujong (or any yogic movement or posture):

“As we practice lujong exercises, we always engage all 1385044three aspects of our being. Our physical body is engaged in the movement, but the mind is not thinking of this body as a mass of material matter. Rather the mind keeps flashing on there essence of the body: appearance emptiness, like a dream body, a body of light, a rainbow in the sky, or a magical emanation. At times we use specific aspects of subtle body visualization, but in general, we connect with the subtle body by meditating on the felt experience of the physical body…”

So what is lujong and why practice it?

Lujong is a series of well over a dozen postures-with-movement that can be done in any order and combination. All are done standing, are not difficult and in essence wake up the body, synchronize body and mind and help tune us in to the subtle body, to awaken our capacity to recognize it, to enter into the felt sense of it. Many of the exercises can be gradually accelerated, increasing aerobics and the opening up of the body. Goldfield describes the ground of practicing lujong this way (also advice for any type of movement):

“When you move, whether slowly of quickly, generate internal vigor and strength. Move in a relaxed and natural way, but let your movement have inner strength that comes from the central core of your body. This will bring clarity to your mind and help protect you from physical injury.”

I’ve been practicing lujong for over twenty years (and received authorization from the Khenpo to teach it to others) and continue to this day. Each morning I incorporate lujong into an hour-long session of hatha yoga, qigong and breathing exercises, all of which help my day begin in the best possible way, and help my meditation sitting which follows. I used to think of meditation as my “real” practice and would not “count” the time I spent in physical yogas 20393133as part of the time I meditated. This I no longer do, as I’ve strived to see them as one… and frankly often feel much more mindful moving than I do on the cushion.

It is for all these reasons that I recommend Training the Wisdom Body to all meditators (and to anyone)! Goldfield’s book contains photographs and very clear text that easily convey how to do the lujong exercises, and why. It is an essential book for understanding what meditation can be.

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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.

Meditation & Divination: A review of The Taoist I Ching

This is the first of five periodic articles reviewing some of “the best books on Taoist I-Chingmediation.” The I Ching might seem an odd choice for a book on meditation but this is an uncommon I Ching; written by an 18th Century Taoist adept who was learned in Buddhism (and Confucianism), this a book that explains not only how to extend meditation into daily life, but also what qualities of self-cultivation are needed for each and every day. As the book’s translator Thomas Cleary put it, “Liu I-ming’s classic can be read as a guide to comprehensive self-realization while living an ordinary life in the world.

Thomas Cleary is one of the preeminent translators of books on Eastern spirituality, having translated over fifty volumes of Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian and Islamic text. A contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Liu I-ming was a most unusual and remarkable person, attaining his realization through a shapeshifting, yogic lifestyle. As Clearly puts it, “During his life Liu I-ming consciously adopted various roles in the world, including those of a scholar, a merchant, a coolie, a recluse, a builder, and a teacher and writer.

At this point, a brief explanation of the I Ching is called for. This ancient book, arguably the world’s oldest, is comprised of sixty-four six-line hexagrams, with each “hexagram” denoting the qualities of a life event or question. Names such as Biting Through, Work on What has been Spoiled, and Inner Truth are often quite self-illuminating as to the meanings of each hexagram, as are the configurations of the lines, which are either yang (firm) or yin (yielding). “Divination” takes the form of throwing three coins six times (the most common contemporary way of determining the outcome) to build a hexagram. The basic principle of the I Ching is that the phenomenal world has meaning, and everything in the world is a reflection of that meaning at any given time. That we – our ego – cannot control the outcome of the falling coins allows meaning to come through.

What makes The Taoist I Ching singular is that it is written in such a way as to show us the makeup and stages of our “meditative career,” the pitfalls and opportunities that present themselves in ordinary life, the challenges to be overcome. The language of the book uses an assortment of terms or phrases that characterize this inner “alchemy” (as transformation is called in Taoism). By looking at the definitions of these terms we will see how applicable and illuminating this book is.

CaldronBefore we look at these terms we need just a bit more technical explanation of the I Ching. Each hexagram looks, for instance, like this (in the case we’ve illustrated hexagram #50, The Caldron):

Furthermore, each hexagram is comprised of two “trigrams” which consist of eight possible combinations, each denoting an aspect of nature or energy. There is an “inner” trigram, the one below – in this case Wind – and the “outer trigram, the one above – in this case Fire or Illumination.

Now we can go on to look at the book’s terminology. The natural place to begin is with yin and yang, the two primordial polarities from which all the other trigrams and hexagrams arise. Yin is commonly called The Receptive, but in the Taoist I Ching it is translated simply as “yielding.” The yielding quality can be “correct” (enlightened) or “delinquent” (neurotic or unbalanced). Correct yin is yielding, flexible, selfless, receptive, devoted, etc. Delinquent yin is vacillating, weak, co-dependent and irresolute. With some reflection, it is not difficult to spot within ourselves which set of yin qualities we are abiding in at any given time. With the use of The Taoist I Ching we are shown a way to increase the correct and reduce the delinquent (more on this below) aspects of yin.

[By the way, we’ve discussed yin first although usually yang is discussed first since it normally appears as the first hexagram in the book. But research has shown that originally it was probably the other way around, since yin is associated with the feminine principle, which is container, space and womb, these qualities precede what occupies the container, the space, the womb.]

The correct qualities of yang are firm, keen, strong, resolute, unified, etc; the delinquent qualities take these qualities to an extreme: strident, petulant, forcing and violent. Minimal self-reflection shows how close these qualities are to each other (as are the qualities of yin), how easily we become delinquent.

Moving on to the hexagrams, the Taoist I Ching claims that four of the sixty-four hexagram are “eternal” in that they apply to any and all situation. Thus hexagrams one and two – the need to be firm and yielding – apply to all situations of daily life. Carrying on a conversation means to speak (yang) and listen (yin). When these qualities become unevenly distributed the conversation will become unsatisfying and obstructed.

The other two eternal hexagram are numbers twenty-nine and thirty, luck-662036_1920translated in The Taoist I Ching as “mastering pitfalls” and “seeking illumination.” The reason these are called eternal is that there is not a single moment of life that does not, in some way, challenge us. Likewise, all of us seek understanding, resolution and wisdom. (These correspond beautifully to the first and fourth Noble Truths; that there is suffering in all conditioned experience; and that there is a path that leads out of unnecessary suffering.)

We can easily find correlation between yang and yin in one of the classic adages of meditation: “Not too tight and not too loose.” These of course mean the proper balance of the firm – discipline – and yielding – letting go. When we become too tight our meditation and attitude toward it -and to life – become rigid. When we are too loose we wander aimlessly in discursive thought and/or dullness.

In any given situation qualities of yang and yin are needed, and these qualities are often described in the classic Taoist terms of “action” or activity and “inaction” or rest. What is called for depends on the time: Thomas Cleary described the I Ching meaning of time this way:

“Here the “appropriate time” seems to suggest the time for doing or accomplishing whatever is to be done or accomplished, the time when something become possible or necessary due to a suitable configuration of conditions.”

The purpose of divination is to reveal the nature of the time and show us the best way to proceed. Here are examples of ordinary situations that Liu I-ming cites as ways to increase correct yang (the notion of alchemy or tantra is always at play in this translation, showing how ordinary life can be transmuted into “gold” or wisdom):

“It may happen that while you are reading books or reciting poetry, personal desires suddenly vanish and a unified awareness is alone present – this is one aspect of the arising of yang.

Also, sometimes when friends gather and talk, they reach a communion of the inner mind, and suddenly yang energy soars up and the true potential bursts forth – this is also one way in which yang arises.

Furthermore, even when playing music, playing games, writing, drawing, fishing, cutting wood, ploughing field, reading books, if you can harmonize spontaneously… there will be serenity and contentment – this is in each case a form of arising of yang.”

A final set of phrases we could look at are “acquired conditioning” and “celestial nature”; the first pertains to our innate basic goodness, our primordial nature, the mind of Tao. The second refers to or habitual patterns; when we are lost in discursive thought and delinquency arises. The Taoist I Ching cautions us that conditioning is much stronger than our celestial nature, not because this is fundamentally so, but because we have become so used to it. the book is filled with examples of the celestial and the conditioned. Here is one from hexagram #7, The Army:

“When people have not yet lost the primordial, this is pure natural reality. It is like when the nation is at peace – even if there are intelligent knights and good generals, there is no need for them. Then when people get mixed up in acquired conditioning, their senses trouble them and their emotions run wild.”

NourishmentIn closing, we should use a specific example. For this, I turned to divination and asked, Please show me a hexagram that would be a suitable illustration for this article. I received #27, Nourishment. The text explains the essence of the hexagram:

“Above is mountain, still, and below is thunder, active (the trigram mountain indicates stillness, the trigram thunder, movement). Action does not depart from stillness; stillness nurtures action.”

In terms of meditation this might mean having a firm seat and nurturing stillness while at the same time accommodating thoughts, including when our mind runs wild. It could also simply be a reminder to practice since movement is “within” (the lower hexagram) while stillness is “without” (the upper hexagram). So often when we are excessively discursive and emotional is the time when we should sit but we don’t.

Finally, I should add that the literature of this text is of the highest order, and beauty, due in part to the superb translation. The spiritual logic of Taoism is elegantly revealed, and is often quite moving, showing the innate goodness of human beings, how our celestial nature manifests. This is from hexagram #13, Sameness with People:

DSC_1629“To mix with the ordinary world, concealing one’s own light, requires great impartiality and impersonality. This is a matter of being selfless. If there is no self, there are no others. When there is no self or others, the sense of others and self leaves; when the sense of others and self leaves, then others are oneself and oneself is identified with others. This is like the sky’s covering everything, like the sun’s shining everywhere.”

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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.

What is the Bardo? Part I

The Tibetan word bardo has begun to enter common usage in the West. Bardo means “gap,” “in between” or “intermediate state.” In Buddhism, bardo generally refers to the time following death and preceding rebirth, a time of disembodied passage and vivid encounter with both one’s enlightened nature and one’s karmic accumulations and psychological projections, some blissful, others disturbing if not terrifying.

Buddhist practitioners often use the term bardo to describe any period of groundlessness and potential confusion: an illness, a relationship breakup, a lost job, even single moments of unsettledness, anxiety or depression. These usages are actually quite apt, since the bardo after death is not considered fundamentally different that these bardos of waking, human experience. In fact, as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and many other teachers have pointed out, it is precisely through awareness and training in unconditionally opening ourselves to these uncomfortable moments that we prepare ourselves for the more demanding journey of bardo after death.

So pervasive is the experience of bardo – the in between state – that every second of our life can be considered a bardo, a moment of nowness sandwiched between the past and future. This state of existence is what is meant when Buddhist teachers speak of the world as dreamlike, merely apparent, without the solidity we impute upon it. That the world is only apparent is a phenomenology found not only in Buddhism but also Sufi teachings (and other systems of spiritual wisdom). The great 12th Century Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi wrote about “existence” this way:

“For the world’s existence is the instance of its nonexistence. Thus the Manifest imposes manifestation upon the first hiddenness, and the world is produced. Next the Hidden imposes hiddenness upon the first manifestation, and the world vanishes. Then the authority returns to the Manifest – and so forth, ad infinitum. This is what is called “renewed creation”. The imaginary prolongation which seems to result from this flowing of similitudes is Time and motion is its measure.” (Ibn ‘Arabi, Journey to the Lord of Power)

DSC_2660Historically, there are a number of different bardos; the bardo of our human life, from birth until the dying process begins is called the kyenay bardo. Contrasting to this is the chikhai bardo or the process of dying itself, the generally uncharted “undiscovered country.” In Tibetan Buddhism, as in all systems of Buddhism, the process of death is seen as a dissolving of the elements—not to be taken literally—beginning with the gross and ending with the most subtle: the body loses the earth element and becomes weak and immobile; it loses the water element and circulation becomes labored; it loses the fire element and begins to become cold; finally it loses the air element when one takes one’s last breath.

In all but the most advanced practitioners, the most awake individuals, death comes as a shock, something confusing, bewildering, overwhelming. Not only that, but as Trungpa Rinpoche once told some of his students, “Death is not a big deal… except it is so painful.” Physical pain mixes with the psychological pain of realizing everything we’ve known is about to be irretrievably gone. A significant part of Buddhist practice is to invite awareness of the reality of death; the major vehicles for this are the “four reminders,” including the reminder of the reality of death:

“When death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always devote myself to virtuous actions. Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.”

A little know aspect of the Vajrayana phenomenology of death is the existence of the “bardo body.” In fact, according to this view, we have three bodies: the gross physical body composed of the elements discussed above, the subtle body consisting of prana or life force and the nadis or channels that the life force runs along (and are the basis of esoteric healing systems such an acupuncture and qigong), and the bardo body. When we die, the first two bodies die; the first during the “outer dissolution” and the second during the “inner” one. The bardo body, however… does not die! As Lama Yeshe says:

“Understanding the subtle body and the very DSC_1710subtle body helps us to recognize that we have other bodies within us in addition to our physical body – so we don’t have to worry too much when our gross body is degenerating or being uncooperative.” (Preparing to Die, by Andrew Holecek, Snow Lion, pg. 69.)

This advice makes it sound easy, but from a Buddhist perspective it is unlikely that we can take comfort in our more subtle bodies unless we have encountered awareness of them in waking life though the practice of meditation.

Resuming our discussion of the dying process, as the elements dissolve, “Our consciousness starts to withdraw, becoming increasingly fuzzy and unclear,” as Traleg Rinpoche puts it, “until we are eventually rendered unconscious. We black out” (Karma, Shambhala Publications pg. 66). But this black out is only temporary, for in the next moment we enter, from the point of view of enlightenment, the most important bardo of all, the chonyi bardo. This is the moment of the famous “clear light” or the “light of consciousness” of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The clear light is the pure emptiness, without content of location but still luminous, knowing and awake. This is the moment all meditation practitioners practice for, for at the moment one can realize and merge with one’s true nature. But again, through meditative practice we can encounter these moments throughout our life, as Ibn ‘Arabi put it, “Every month, every week, every day, every hour, every minute or even – which is the goal – with every breath.”
The phenomenology of Vajrayana Buddhism states that the clear light is usually a brief moment and typically goes unrecognized. At the same time, the light of awareness is considered easy to recognize for those who have trained to recognize it. In any case, the chonyi bardo offers a chance for liberation, but so do the upcoming passages of the sidpa bardo, the journey through one’s psychological progressions that ultimately leads to rebirth.
(The sidpa bardo will be the topic of “What is the Bardo? – Part II.)

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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.

What is the Unconscious in Buddhism?

In examining the Buddhist view of the unconscious we might first look at our most prevalent contemporary notions of this term. Sigmund Freud is the originator of our modern and widely held definition of the unconscious. Freud viewed the unconscious as being made up of everything we repress – traumas, anger, sexual frustration, the fear of death, etc. Carl Jung, Freud’s protégé and disciple, eventually broke with his mentor on a number of issues, including his conception of the unconscious. For Jung the unconscious had two levels, one similar to Freud’s and another a radical departure. This latter understanding Jung called the collective unconscious.

DSC_7567For Jung, the collective unconscious is common to all humanity, a shared storehouse holding latent memories from our ancestral and evolutionary past. Jung held that we were born into these predispositions, “The form of the world into which [a person] is born is already inborn in him, as a virtual image.” These “virtual images” constellated into distinct subsystems of the personality, which he famously called archetypes. It is through encountering archetypes that human beings begin to understand the various complexes they are subject to, as well as discover the individuation we are capable of (in individuation the personal and collective unconscious are brought into consciousness, a transformation process necessary for the integration of the psyche and experience of wholeness).

Freud’s and Jung’s notions of the unconscious have shaken the historical foundations of identity and a brought a humbling of the supremacy of ego. Our experience is not only something we cannot control, but something we can barely discern.

What parallels to these usages of the unconscious do we find in Buddhism? What is the unconscious in Buddhism?

A notion similar to our Western understanding of the unconscious arose in India approximately 1,700 years ago and was called the alaya-vijnana. Alaya means “substratum” or “storehouse” and vijnana means “consciousness” (as in the fifth skanda – see What is Karma – Part 2). The storehouse consciousness was part of the philosophy of the Yogacharya or “mind-only” school of Mahayana Buddhism. In this school, mind-only does not mean everything, such as rocks and trees, is mind, but that all human experience is constructed by the mind.

The alaya-vijnana is a concept or discovery that arose to account for the workings of karma (see What is Karma – Part I and Part II), and to counter a major criticism of Buddhist doctrine posited by various Hindu schools and critics. They argued: Without a “self” how was it possible for a human being to experience rebirth? In addition, they asked: If human life is only a stream of mental events without any substantive connection between them, what accounts for memory? The answer was the existence of a storehouse-consciousness, a repository of karmic volition and a vehicle to make memory possible. As Traleg Rinpoche put it, “Latently present, at an unconscious level of consciousness, so to speak, is a repository of all our karmic traces and dispositions.”
Karma: What is is, What it isn’t, Why it Matters (Shambhala Publications, 2015, page 61)


The Yogacharins differentiated the alaya-vijnana from a soul precisely because a soul by definition does not change, whereas the storehouse-consciousness not only changes but can be transformed. The alaya-vijnana accounts for the “continuity of consciousness” during life and after death, and is also the reason that we can affect and alter our karmic dispositions. In this regard it is extremely good news. Karma is not something that rigidly predetermines our future but rather something fluid, in flux, changeable. We can alter our karma and our future by the “seeds” we plant through our intentions and actions. A principle tenet of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, for instance, is that through the gentleness and appreciation that arises through mindfulness we can “plant good seeds” in our storehouse-consciousness.

That the alaya-vijnana is a storehouse for all of our actions differentiates it from the conventional Western notion of the unconscious, considered something primarily composed of repressed experience. At the same time, Freud’s unconscious and Jung’s collective unconscious are sources of transformation — through dreams and other analytic work — and thus bear a similarity to the storehouse-consciousness.

Like the Western unconscious, the alaya-vijnana is a subjective phenomenon that produces a unique experience for everyone, one in which we seldom experience the true nature of reality. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

The source of our perception, our way of seeing, lies in our store consciousness. If ten people look at a cloud, there will be ten different perceptions of it. Whether it is perceived as a dog, a hammer, or a coat depends on our mind — our sadness, our memories, our anger. Our perceptions carry with them all the errors of subjectivity.
– The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax Press, 1998, p. 50)

The alaya-vijnana not only carries all our memories and karmic traces, it is also, according to the Yogacharins, the “seat” of Buddha Nature, of who we fundamentally are. Buddha nature is not something we have but what we are. Because we are fundamentally Buddhas is why we can achieve Buddhahood. Although we typically interpret the alaya-vijnana as a “self,” it is a self that is not real. Whereas Buddha nature is awareness, something unchanging, unborn and fundamentally real. The journey of meditation is to see through the false self (the five skandas as an ego process) and to glimpse our Buddha nature. As these glimpses grow, so does our ability to shape the storehouse-consciousness. This is the nature of the path, the fourth Noble Truth of the Buddha.

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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.

What is Karma? (Part 2)

The Sanskrit word Karma means action, work, or deed. The word has its roots in the ancient Vedic teachings of India and concepts derived from karma have found their way into Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism and Buddhism. In studying the Buddhist meaning of karma it is appropriate to cite its Hindu origins, since the Buddha drew from and reformed Hinduism, not just in the notion of no abiding or eternal self – anatman – but in the doctrine of karma (and many other concepts and principles).

In writing about karma, I will cite from – and highly recommend – Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche’s excellent book, Karma: What it is, What it isn’t, Why it Matters, which, among other things, documents the Buddha’s view of karma. For instance, the Buddha accepted one of the prevailing beliefs of his time that the human being was a form composed of air, fire, water, earth and space (these were of course metaphors for our body/mind qualities). However, in his “five skanda” teachings, the Buddha added to this concept of body/mind, stating the human experience consisted not just of form, but of feelings, perceptions, concepts and consciousness.

DSC_1055Skanda (Sanskrit) means “multitude, quantity, aggregate” – and is sometimes translated simply as “heap.” The five skandas are a definition of human nature, that we are creatures that perceive, have thoughts and feelings, form concepts, etc. But, crucially, in no way are the skandas seen as solid entities or as enduring. These aggregates only create a semblance of an entity. Not only do they not endure beyond death, they didn’t even endure moment to moment. They are like the elements that make up a cloud: water vapor, dust and pollen, the atmosphere and sunlight. A cloud is apparent yet ephemeral — and a human being is also. Traleg Rinpoche writes:

“This was a completely new idea, as until then people had thought of the individual as a unitary entity, based on the dualistic philosophy of a substance standing apart from the mind/body a belief in some kind of principle, like jiva (the immortal essence of a living being) or soul.”

Based on his own experience, the Buddha refuted the notion of a jiva that existed side-by-side with the body. He stated that this soul not only could not be found, but holding on to the concept confused us and hindered self-realization. Buddha proposed, as Traleg Rinpoche writes, that “the best way to see our nature was to see it made up of many elements” and also proposed that we simply “pay attention to ourselves” in order to discover our true nature. In Buddhism, the preeminent method for paying attention is, of course, meditation.

In the observations we make in meditation, we discover a most prominent and greatly magnified feature of our existence: that it is largely habitual, that our daily life consists of habits of perceiving, habits of behaving, habits of thinking. The skandas accurately model our habitual experience since each skanda is itself a habit (for instance, the skanda of feeling responds to the “external” world in the most limited and habitual of ways: grasping it, avoiding it or ignoring it).

DSC_1957Our habits, whether “good” or “bad” form the basis of our karmic experience, they influence our present state of being and form the overriding potentialities of our future existence, including rebirth. Quite simply, our future — including future lives — is the result of our habitual volitional action. To believe in — and discover first-hand — this proposition of karma can be quite disturbing. “What about all those insects I killed as a child? we might wonder. Not to mention remembering the people we’ve harmed (even however subtly), the addictions we have, the sloth we are prone to. Most of us are not overly confident of a favorable rebirth.

But there is extremely good news in the Buddha’s notion of karma. Although our present experience is largely determined by our past habits, the future is far from predetermined. Our future also depends on the very real free will that we can wield in the present moment. Although we might operate habitually, it is precisely because our experience (1) lacks an essence, (2) is impermanent and (3) is interdependent (the definitions of anatman) that we can readily influence our character and fate. It’s a question of closely examining our habits, it’s a question of glimpsing the alternative, it’s a question of undoing the conventions of our own psyche. As Paul Klee said, “Genius is the error in the system.”

It is noteworthy that people who have survived life-threatening accidents and near-death experiences often seem to awaken — at least for a while — into a far less habitual experience of life. The old conventions of taking life for granted are shattered; impermanence is seen in all its vividness and one feels the joyous interdependence of life. Even the lack of an abiding self might be glimpsed. Meditation is a tool that brings similar gifts into consciousness. Daily practice of meditation creates gaps in our habits and is a first step in breaking karmic habituality. We can also take advantage of all the small and usually harmless accidents that befall us in daily life. Forgetting our passport when we’ve already left for the airport, suddenly fighting with our wife or husband or spilling coffee on our shirt each produce small moments of loss and panic that can be capitalized on if we use mindfulness to avoid our habitual responses. Each of these types of events can be an awake-death experience. Each of these experiences can be used to shape our future. Each can become a moment of genius.


Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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.

What is the Middle Way?

What is the middle way?

Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings. – Jalal ad-Din  Rumi

In the quote above, Rumi illustrates DSC_1910a nature-based view of existence free from extremes, a kind of Taoist liberation discovered to be balanced and within us. A kind of middle way. Taoism itself is sometimes called the “middle way” and so is Buddhism. Both traditions, unlike the Judeo-Christian worlds of the Middle East, are non-theistic. They neither attempt to find a path toward God nor claim to follow commandments She might have set forth, but instead find their liberation in the inherently personal way-seeking practices of meditation or qigong, and in philosophies eminently sensible to individual study and application.

As for Buddhism, the fundamental elements of the middle way are present in the methods by which the Buddha gradually discovered it. Living the palace life of hedonistic pleasure sheltered from pain, young Siddhartha, in order to seek greater meaning, fled from his privileges and took up various practices of the ascetics of his time; fasting and other deprivations. Eventually he found that the practices of self-denial only led to greater duality – a war against the senses – and confinement. Starved and weakened from fasting, in the moment a young girl gave the Buddha milk to drink he revived into his first middle way revelation: that both hedonism and self-mortification were seductive but do not lead to liberation.

From this initial discovery, the middle way teachings evolved through the Buddha’s own sermons as well as countless discourses that followed his over the centuries. The most central (no pun intended) of all middle way teachings concerns the opposing views of eternalism, which deems everything to have a true meaning and nihilism, that nothing means anything. Both views possess compelling arguments and everyone, at times, falls subject to them. Transcending them is daunting since they form the unconscious conceptual structures of our world view. For instance, the conquistadors of Christian Spain had little qualms enslaving or murdering the inhabitants of Peru and Bolivia. Belief systems enabled them to be both theistic, holding convictions that non-Christians did not possess souls, as well as nihilistic, believing that it was of no consequence to slaughter the peoples of the New World.

Emerging from such diverse influences as the industrial revolution,Ocean stone Nietzsche’s death of God, The Holocaust, the aesthetics of post-modernism, the H bomb and environmental catastrophes, our own epoch is characterized by a pervasive and pessimistic nihilism. Heidegger’s famous quote, “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods,” proclaims how, as we’ve taken up the beliefs of scientific materialism, we’ve lost our experience in the unseen or invisible world. We have lost conviction in the magical dimensions of the world: shamanism, the angelic realms, the gods as the Greeks knew them, etc.

I once asked the late Buddhist master Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche about the pervasiveness of nihilism, even among Buddhists:

Question: The 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 there is a lot of experience of nihilism in the West. This manifests as a diminished sense of this of co-participatory relationship with the world at large, and of the unseen world. What are your thoughts on this?

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 – which even people like Nagarjuna and Shantideva were very strong on – 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.

Eternalism is also pervasive in modern life. This takes the form and the perennial belief that we will not die, the subtle sense that we have an unlimited future. This internalized belief causes us to put any kind of discipline into the future, that we will finally begin meditation in earnest when we retire, or when we’ve built a beautiful shrine room in our back yard. In terms of artistic discipline, Charles Bukowski nailed this in a poem written to a woman who will begin creating as soon as she moves into her new-found studio with lots of “space and light”:

baby, air and light and time and spaceFlag
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

Another highly useful aspect of the middle way are teachings that apply to meditation practice itself. Chogyam Trungpa described it as “not too tight, not too loose.” What this means is easy to understand though not always easy to recognize in one’s own practice, since, like eternalism and nihilism, each of us tends to fall into one of the extremes, making it difficult to see our own practice with fidelity. “Not too tight” means not too much effort, an excess of which brings tension rather than ease, self-consciousness rather than freedom from small self. “Not too loose” means enough exertion to stay awake, to not be constantly drifting into discursive thought, to not become simply dull.

In closing, we might turn to the words of the Buddha himself: “The middle path, O Bhikkus, avoiding the two extremes, has been discovered by the Tathagata – a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to nirvana.”


Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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.

What is Karma? (Part 1)

It is impossible to build one’s own happiness on the unhappiness of others. This perspective is at the heart of Buddhist teachings.
Daisaku Ikeda

Awareness is without choice, without demand, without anxiety; in that state of mind there is perception. Perception alone will solve all our problems.
Bruce Lee

Karma, from Sanskrit, is now a household name, so to speak, as commonplace in usage as Super Bowl or Barack Obama – though it first entered English, surprisingly, less than 200 year ago (1827). The word has been absorbed into our psyches and has proliferated so universally that nearly everyone has something to say about it. We seemingly instinctively know what it means… and so did Confucius, who wrote, “When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.” Kurt Cobain tried to nail it, too: “If you’re really a mean person you’re going to come back as a fly and eat poop.”

Merriam-Webster says karma is “the force generated by a person’s Sandalsactions held in Hinduism and Buddhism to perpetuate transmigration and in its ethical consequences to determine the nature of the person’s next existence.” This definition comes close to what many people think karma is. Buddhism, though not necessarily requiring its adherents to believe in transmigration, does posit a sophisticated and lucid understanding of the transmigration or rebirth process, though, the process is not considered something that happens only at death. Rebirth occurs moment to moment. Our “next existence” – whether upon actual death or in the moment a love affair ends – is the result of the momentum of our ways-of-being that preceded it.

What are the “ethical consequences” that determine our rebirth? They fall into two broad categories, those of conduct and those of “pure perception.” The first is what everyone more or less agrees upon, that good deeds lead to less pain for self and other, while negative deeds lead to the opposite. But there are endless subtleties and even mysteries to the issues of conduct. For instance, should we strive to achieve good deeds or concentrate on refraining from negative ones, or both? The late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, in his excellent book Karma, states that our first focus should be to refrain from the negative, but that we should be realistic in our efforts:

“The idea, simply enough, is that it is more helpful to focus on what we can achieve rather than struggle unprofitably with a problem that overwhelms us and will in itself become more burdensome if handled incorrectly.”

In other words, if we are not realistic in our aspirations to refrain from negative acts we will only end of blaming ourselves for our failure to become better (see also Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism). What have we achieved then? Curiously, as Traleg Rinpoche goes on to say, “Letting go of the things we cannot immediately attain itself creates very positive karma.” What is the nature of this “very positive karma”? It is maitri or loving kindness to oneself… which of course affects others.

There is another notion of working with karma, which is how to not create karma at all. From the Buddhist perspective, even good karma creates the momentum of rebirth (and in fact can lead to very difficult states of being, such as the “god realm,” where one becomes unconsciously enmeshed in ultimately transient spiritual pleasures; when the spell breaks the “fall” from the god realm is severely painful). This understanding of karma is rooted in the experience of meditation itself.

DSC_1836In meditation we begin to see that thoughts fall into three categories: thoughts of the past, the present and the future. In daily life, these thoughts proliferate as the discursive web we find ourselves believing. In deeply unconscious and habitual ways, we project the past onto the present…and thus determine our future. As Chogyam Trungpa said, “The memory of the past renews the past in the present situation.” This constant renewal clouds our ability to recognize the nature of the present moment. To experience this bewildering ignorance is to be karmically entrapped.

From this perspective, this momentum, itself a flimsy creation or habit, can be penetrated through the training of meditative experience. This is the experience of nowness. Chogyam Trungpa described it this way:

“Nowness is what certain tantric teachings talk about as “the fourth moment” – a state which transcends past, present and future. So there’s no reference point at all: we are just simply being right there. We could just be open and straightforward. At this point the meditator sows no seeds of karma for a moment.”

One of the terms in Tibetan for meditation is gom, which means “familiarization.” The fourth moment is what the meditator has the potential of familiarizing herself with, gradually, day by day, each time she or he meditates (or has moments of “meditation in action” in daily life). Through the disciplines of refining our conduct and seeing nakedly into the fourth moment, we may potentially not only “solve all our problems” but also help alleviate the problems of others.

Read More: What is Karma (Part 2) “The Sanskrit word Karma means action, work, or deed…”

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher 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 Bring The Monastery Into Your Kitchen

I recently staffed a four-week meditation retreat, called dathun (which in Tibetan means “moon-month session”). Dathun was designed by Chogyam Trungpa in the early 1970s as a rigorous form of group meditation, a way for his students to take the next step on the path.

Over the years, dathun evolved to include taking meals according to the tradition of oryoki, a form of dining developed in Zen Buddhism. I had a chance to re-experience oryoki in the dathun I staffed; here is an excerpt from my journal:

Twenty-eight days of meditation.  A strict schedule.

Taking meals in the oryoki tradition, a silent form of eating using spoon, chopsticks and four nested bowls, with cloths used to wash the bowls after you eat from them. The demanding rules of oryoki are at first intimidating and tedious, but ultimately rewarding in the way that any way of life that could go on forever is. You might not talk, but laughter is prevalent.

Initially oryoki, like meditation, can be irritating and tiresome. Every movement from untying the bow that holds the set together to the final moment of retying it is specifically choreographed (the choreography can be seen in full on this YouTube video). There is a strict order of eating and all food taken must be consumed. If the pinto beans from the kitchen are semi-raw one must still eat them! But once the form is learned it become effortless and warmly communal.

Oryoki also makes huge environmental sense. Not only does it generate no waste – no paper napkins, no plastic spoons, no landfill items – but it conserves water in the extreme. A spatula is used to pre-clean ones ones bowls and then rinse water is brought around to wash them. What happens to your rinse water once your bowls are clean? You drink it.

Typically, converts to oryoki leave meditation retreats longing to continue, at least in some way, this most mindful way of eating together. Oryoki, however, was designed for the monastery and it is not easy, or perhaps even advisable, to continue practicing it in your fifth-floor walkup or suburban kitchen. But there are ways to bring the monastery into the kitchen.
. . .
The etymology of Oryoki is telling, and apt to any kitchen or dining room:

O: the receiver’s response to the offering of food.
Ryo: a measure or an amount to be received.
Ki: the bowl.

Oryoki Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 5.23.32 PMOryoki means the bowl or plate we eat from, the amount of food we receive and, most significantly, our state of mind when we receive (and eat) the food. Normally we think a lot about the food we eat, but not much about our response of receiving it. Normally we might be polite to the wife, husband, mother, father or waiter who serves us our food, but we don’t emphasize those moments, we don’t cultivate them, we don’t regard them as moments of potential awakening.

And how often do we give thanks to the food itself, to the creatures – from earthworms to chickens – who gave their life so we could eat? We don’t often give conscious thanks to the plants and animals or to the resources – water, gasoline, even price tags – that brought the food to our table.



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.