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.

What is Lineage and How Do We Connect to It?

Buddhism takes pride in having a 2,500 year unbroken lineage stretching back to Gautama Buddha. But the passed-on knowledge of how to bake bread or construct a building like the Pantheon is also lineage.

Each of us lives at the intersection of countless lineages and without their skills and knowledge we’d be, culturally speaking, butt naked, thirsty and starving.

buddhist lineageIt is easy enough to fathom the lineages of baking or carpentry, but what is a spiritual lineage, something that seems so intangible? Buddhism as spiritual lineage is the transmission, from teacher to student, of our original or primordial mind.

Since it is innate and not external to ourselves, our original mind cannot really be “transmitted” but only pointed to.

When we recognize our original mind we become, in that moment, part of the lineage because we are sharing in the same quality of mind as the masters who preceded us.

As Chogyam Trungpa once wrote, “Father and child are one in the realm of thought” – though by “thought” what he meant was before-thought.

In order to discover lineage, Chogyam Trungpa wrote,

You have to look back, back to where you came from, back to the original state. In this case, looking back is not looking back in time, going back several thousand years. It is looking back into your own mind, to before history began, before thinking began, before thought ever occurred. When you are in contact with this original ground, then you are never confused buy the illusions of the past and future. You are able to rest continuously in nowness.

Meditation is the process in which we glimpse the moment before thought, moments of pure awareness or original Buddhist monks in Laosmind. It is in these moment of “nowness” that we join with the lineage. Similarly, seeing nature or moving works of art also brings about moments of nowness. When our mind is stopped by seeing a Caravaggio or Cezanne we become part of the lineage of these painters. When we glimpse pure awareness we become part of the lineages of Dogen, Milarapa and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Just as appreciation of a painting masterpiece brings love for the painter who created it, glimpses of the true nature of our mind brings love or devotion for the lineage. These glimpses spark a passionate relationship of longing for our teacher and the lineage of teachers who preceded us. This is one of the ways in which meditation is far more than mindfulness alone.

Without longing and devotion we cannot fathom what lineage is, much less become a bonafide part of it.

Since lineage is experienced on this inner level, its development is both linear and multidimensional. History and organization tell us something about lineage, especially in the cases when it was formally passed from one master to the next, but lineage is also an “infection” that is passed in ways that history and organizations can never fully record. Great masters touch countless people simply through their presence and we can never know how these moments of transmission become realized in the lives of their recipients.


By Bill Scheffel

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.

The Great Mystery of Finding a Spiritual Teacher

“Don’t misunderstand – this teacher is not always a person. It can embrace you like morning dew in a field, and you get a strange feeling, Oh, this is it, my teacher is this field.”
— Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi

Finding a Spiritual Teacher

In 1970 I was sixteen and reading Chögyam Trungpa’s first book, Meditation in Action. My hair was long and I carried the book in my back pocket (or ones by Alan Watts or Herman Hesse). Part of me knew, and part of me had no idea that Chögyam Trungpa would become my teacher.

2106_56864986423_2749_n_2If Buddhism is a way to become truly human, then we encounter many teachers in our lifetime, beginning with our parents. We generally think of a spiritual teacher with a capital T, but how do we find one? The path seems to be one of tendril, a Tibetan word meaning that all situations arise through the coming together of various forces.

In Western terms the word synchronicity is similar, in which uncanny and seemingly impossible-to-foresee events conspire to lead us, in this case, to a teacher. This path is a narrative, a deeply personal story.
To participate in this story we need both openness and critical intelligence.

Openness is a humility, a knowing that we don’t know and a yearning for true knowledge, a recognition that wisdom passes to us through lineages. Sometimes a poem or novel might awaken this openness (thus Allen Ginsberg or Toni Morrison might be our lineage forbearer), sometimes a person.

Critical intelligence means a trust in ourselves, a tendency not to be duped, a recognition that the path of wisdom is fundamentally inside us, that the story is our own. As Chögyam Trungpa once said, “A teacher or fellow traveler or the scriptures might show us where we are on a map and where we might go from there, but we must make the journey ourselves.” Similarly, Trungpa once said following the spiritual path is something we must do alone, and the role of the teacher is to tell us that.

In terms of Buddhism, our search for a teacher will likely if not inevitably be conducted within the, now myriad, meditation DSC_0125programs and centers found throughout the West and the world. The first person who correctly instructs us in meditation will be our teacher. So, inevitably, will many others. Perhaps we will never find a teacher with a capital T.

My first teacher of meditation had only two years more experience than I did, but she instructed me well. I can still remember our first meditation session. I sat for one hour with a small group of other students. This felt like the longest hour of my life; how could my body hurt so much, be so restless? But also, the most vivid hour of my life.

“Ghostly Gurus”

Although Buddhism (especially Varjrayana Buddhism) places great emphasis on a teacher, the teacher we find may not always be living. This has been especially true in the wake of the passing of some of the great Tibetan gurus of the Twentieth Century: the Sixteen Gyalwa Karmapa, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche or Chögyam Trungpa.

Through dreams, through atmospheric presence, or through knowing one of their students, many people have a genuine and steadfast connection to one of these teachers. I have met many such people. I personally feel Chögyam Trungpa’s presence as strongly now as when he was alive.

Carl Jung, in his book Memories, Dreams and Reflections, tells an interesting story: Jung himself had an “invisible” teacher, Philamen – “At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru.” This must have been an admission that Jung was reluctant to make…that his guru was a spirit or drala!

Jung went on to discuss an encounter he had some years later with a highly educated Indian man, a friend of Gandhi’s. Jung said the two of them discussed education, particularly the role of guru and chela (disciple) and at one point the Indian gentleman disclosed his own guru, “Oh yes, he was Shankaracharya.”

“You don’t mean the commentator on the Vedas who died centuries ago?” I (Jung) asked.

“Yes, I mean him,” he said to my amazement.”

“Then you are referring to a spirit?” I asked.

“Of course it was his spirit,” he agreed. At that moment I thought of Philemon. “There are ghostly gurus too,” he added. “Most people have living gurus. But there are always some who have a spirit for teacher.”

The First Steps Toward Finding a Teacher

Finding a teacher is not something we can manufacture, but it is something we can set out to do, something we can, as mentioned, have a longing for.

The best way to begin the process of finding a teacher, is to begin working on ourselves. It is like preparing the soil of a garden. If the soil is dug deeply, is well fertilized with organic material and kept watered, the seeds that we plant in it will grow.

Meditation is available to all of us now. It can even be learned online. Meditation is preparing the garden. In the openness and alertness that emerges from our practice of meditation, we are much more prone to recognizing the teacher. Without the ability to recognize, we might never notice the teacher, even if we bump into her.

In one of his talks, the late Zen teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi drew attention to the fact of how we always think we “are bad,” and the teacher is someone who tells us otherwise. But he added, “Don’t misunderstand – this teacher is not always a person. It can embrace you like morning dew in a field, and you get a strange feeling, Oh, this is it, my teacher is this field.”
Conversely, Otogawa was once asked,

“When all the teachers are gone, who will be your teacher?” A student replied: “Everything!” Otogawa, paused, then said: “No, you.”

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.

Put Away Your Crystals and Grab a Cushion

In our quick-fix, instant-gratification culture, spirituality can easily become a way to build up our egos or even avoid ourselves altogether. The aim of many new age practices is to become a more highly-developed, spiritual person, but in the process, some of the practices simply enable us to bypass how things actually are.

Some spiritual practices help us avoid or numb our lives completely. “So much of what passes for spirituality these days is really about pleasure seeking, getting high,” says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. “This self-absorption disguised as spirituality only leads to more suffering. Real spirituality is about getting grounded. Once we understand who we are, we can realize the needs of others and do something about helping them.”

As part of a genuine spiritual path, Meditation gives us the opportunity to explore our whole experience without rejecting any part of ourselves. Meditation keeps us honest so we can discern if what we are experiencing is genuine or just a fantasy.

Studying our Experience

Everyone comes to meditation with projections and expectations about practice. Maybe we expect to become more productive or intelligent. Maybe we think practice will make us more likable or interesting. However, meditation requires letting go of these preconceptions.

The spiritual path is not about living up to an ideal or concept, or even about believing in anything in particular. True spirituality is about discovering one’s own dignity and worthiness through exploring one’s own experience.

The principle method of studying experience is through the practice of meditation. This can be likened to a scientific inquiry into who we are. The Dalai Lama calls studying this subjective experience, the “science of the mind.” During practice one questions one’s thought-patterns and begins to observe one’s mind in a neutral, unattached way. We all come to meditation with expectations, but the process of meditation is opening to the changing of our thoughts, ideas and perceptions.

Cultivating Bravery

Genuine spirituality is about developing the courage to explore the dark areas of one’s life with gentleness and compassion. Meditation is the practice of resisting the urge to reject, judge or control parts of ourselves we don’t like. This openness lets us be in the world without hiding behind beliefs and viewpoints.

Just being alive is a very raw experience; meditation develops this bravery and gives us the skills to open up rather than close down. “Ultimately, the definition of bravery is not being afraid of yourself,” says Pema Chödrön. Spirituality is ultimately about finding the bravery to help oneself and others.

Compassion and Vulnerability

Genuine spirituality is about becoming less selfish and developing kindness and compassion towards others. Being helpful and caring for others requires getting in touch with our own hearts. Instead of seeking out a spiritual high or comfortable experience, meditation practice helps us touch into vulnerability as a way to develop compassion.

Usually we reject painful emotions, fearful that they will overwhelm us. However, Pema Chödrön teaches that touching into our own vulnerability connects us to others.

She writes, “Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion.”

When we give up defending ourselves, its possible to be truly compassionate and helpful to others. When we are more comfortable in our own skin, its possible to let more of the world in.

Some perspectives to ponder:

“It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego.  This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort or whatever it is that a particular ego is seeking.”

– Trungpa Rinpoche

“If you go deeper and deeper into your own heart, you’ll be living in a world with less fear, isolation and loneliness.”

– Sharon Salzberg

Learning to Meditate – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Learning to Meditate with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Meditation is the practice of getting our mind familiar with relaxation and calmness.  In this teaching, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, demonstrates the basic approach of meditation, using breath as the object of practice. “Breathing makes us realize how fragile we are, how human we are and how precious things are.”

In his instruction, Sakyong Mipham teaches us how to work with thoughts and emotions during practice by continually bringing our attention back to the breath. He instructs us how we can adopt an attitude of relaxation and tranquility in our practice and develop a personal relationship to mind training by asking “Why am I meditating?”


How Do I Start Meditating

How do I start Meditating?

Even though meditation is relaxing and good for us, it can be difficult to actually start practicing. We can get so addicted to the speed of everyday life that the thought of slowing down and doing nothing can be downright scary. However, once we put in a little effort to get on the cushion, we’ll start to see the benefits of practice which will bring us back for more.

Here are some steps to help you get started.

Ground Yourself

3_22Before starting your practice it is important to understand that meditation is not about changing ourselves into some extra-special spiritual being. “The main thing the Buddha discovered was that he could be himself–one hundred percent, completely.” says, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. “We are not saying that our immediate situation is unworthy. What we’re saying is that the present situation is completely available and unbiased, and that we can see it that way through the practice of mindfulness.” The point is not to reach some higher level of mind by manipulating how we are feeling. Meditation is simply tuning in a little to our experience and discovering how we actually think and feel. Having an aggressive or tough approach to our practice won’t help us relax, and will only make sitting more difficult.

Choose an Approach

There so many resources available online to help us choose an approach that it can be overwhelming. However, while they differ in their methods, all traditions share basic principles about developing mindfulness awareness. The most important thing is to find out what technique works for you. If you try to use a technique that feels uncomfortable you will not practice often. We can trust in the fact that mindfulness practice techniques have been around for thousands of years. People have woken up using these simple techniques.

Here are some places to start:

(Link to videos we will post soon)  

Schedule your practice times

Its important to plan out a meditation schedule and stick to it. Even if you only schedule   5 minutes in the morning, briefly tuning in can change your outlook for the day. Most teachers will tell you that consistency is more important than how long you practice. Committing to practice for a set amount of time is important because otherwise you will get up when you start to feel bored or uncomfortable. Staying on the cushion when you don’t feel like it is important for developing the discipline of meditation practice.

Its too easy to skip sessions, but the more you practice the more it will start to become a habit and you will feel like something is off when you miss a session. The less you practice, the more getting to the cushion will feel like a big event you have to psych yourself up to do.

Choose a Book as a practice guide

It can be a good idea to have a book to study alongside your meditation practice. Reading a few passages before or after a practice session deepens your relationship to meditation. Sometimes meditation can become routine that we forget why we began practicing in the first place. Reading can renew our inspiration. Depending on what tradition draws your interest, there are many books for beginners that can help guide you through practice: Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield, The Miracle of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Mind Beginners Mind by Suzuki Roshi, Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

Find a Community

Meditation is not always easy and having the support of fellow practitioners can help strengthen our commitment to practice. Buddhists call a community of practitioners a sangha. A sangha can be group a group friends who get together to practice or a bigger community that meets at a Buddhist center. Meditation centers often host talks by senior teachers,  discussion groups and classes. Some centers will also help you find a meditation instructor who can guide you one on one in meditation practice and answer questions as they come up. “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are three precious jewels in Buddhism, and the most important of these is Sangha.” Says Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Sangha contains the Buddha and the Dharma. A good teacher is important, but sisters and brothers in the practice are the main ingredient for success.” Practicing and studying with others is a great way to support our practice and develop deep spiritual friendships.

Benefits of Meditation

The benefits of meditation are vast, and in many ways unmeasurable or quantifiable. Here are just a few to get your inspiration going.   

Reduces Stress

In the past decade, meditation as  a tool for stress reduction has become increasingly popular. There is so much in the in the news about mindfulness, it could be easy to dismiss as a passing fad or cure all. But Scientists and psychologists are increasingly finding that meditation does help people better manage stress. And why wouldn’t it? Stress is all about our reactions to life circumstances. How we respond to the world is a reflection of how we think and feel. While a certain amount of stress is beneficial by alerting us to dangerous situations, a huge amount of stress is added on by our own minds. By creating more space between our thoughts and reactions, it is possible to reduce the unnecessary amount of stress we put ourselves under.

Increases self-awareness

Mindfulness practice develops self-awareness, the capability to observe our own behavior without judgement. Several tests are used by scientists to measure self-awareness among meditators. The “Five facet mindfulness questionnaire” was developed by researchers to determine the effectiveness of mindfulness training describes self awareness as an “enhanced capacity for acting with present-centered awareness rather than on ‘automatic pilot’–lost in the past or future.” Several studies have found that practitioners self-report self-awareness using this method. The ability to slow down and reflect on life is an under-utilized skill in today’s action oriented have self reported . Being able pause and reflect on one’s actions and how they are affecting others, can change your life. Increased self-awareness fosters better relationships with those we live and work with.

Increases self-acceptance

“All suffering, stress, and addiction comes from not realizing you already are what you are looking for,” says John Kabat-zinn, researcher and director of the Center for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Stress and anxiety can be a clever way resist who who we are, out of fear of not being who we wish we were. Meditation lets us find our who we truly are, behind the storylines and thought-chatter. In her book, When things Fall apart, Pema Chodron explains,  “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” Meditation is a radical form of self acceptance that develops integrity and genuineness and reduces anxiety and depression.

Regulates Emotions

Recent studies have shown that mindfulness training can help regulate emotions in the brain. At the University of Toronto, researchers found that after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice, the brains of meditators and a non-meditator appeared quite different. When shown distressing images, Non-medtator’s brains showed significant activations in the left side of their brain, areas that are “self-referencing.” Shown the same pictures, meditators scans displayed a more even spread of activations on both left and right sides of their brain. The study demonstrated that meditators have calmer reactions to troubling stimuli, by not over activating their left brains. The epidemic of PTSD in veterans, a disorder characterized by the inability to regulate emotions, have initatied more research in this area. Distancing our identification with anger, lessens its destructive power.  

Develops Contentment

Although it’s common to find articles claiming meditation makes you happy, from the the perspective of mindfulness based meditation, contentment might be a more accurate term. Meditation develops a basic contentment with things as they are. Happiness usually means chasing something outside of us. Practicing meditation and being in the present moment leads to a sense of contentment towards yourself and others. A basic contentment, stops us from treating others as obstacles or competition to our happiness. Happiness is usually thought of as something it’s possible to have, contentment is more a way of being.

Improves Physical Health

Science is increasingly finding that the mind and body are more connected than previously realized. Research has linked anxiety and depression to heart disease, chronic respiratory problems and other ailments. Our emotions and thoughts affect our physical body in more ways than we realize. A recent study published in Psychosomatic Medicine,  found that participants who practiced a mindfulness regiment developed more anti-bodies to influenza than a non-meditating control group by the end of the study.

Some of the first research conducted around mindfulness training explored how mindfulness training can alleviate chronic pain. John Kabat-Zinn’s research on this subject has led to the development mindfulness pain reduction techniques that are currently being a used in used in clinical settings.