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.

Abandon Any Hope of Fruition

When one of the emperors of China asked Bodhidharma (the Zen master who brought Zen from India to China) what enlightenment was, his answer was, “Lots of space, nothing holy.” Meditation is nothing holy. Therefore there’s nothing that you think or feel that somehow gets put in the category of “sin.” There’s nothing that you can think or feel that gets put in the category of “bad.” There’s nothing that you can think or feel that gets put in the category of “wrong.” It’s all good juicy stuff—the manure of waking up, the manure of achieving enlightenment, the art of living in the present moment.

Excerpted from:
Start Where You Are
page 100

 

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 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.

A Few Great Moments with Pema Chödrön

Reflecting on Pema Chödrön’s 80th birthday, I thought I would share a few inspiring, heart-opening teachings. I was fortunate to do a Dathun (month-long sit) in mostly silence with Pema in the Winter of 1991, with a two dozen students. I never felt the month was long since we were joined by a few monastics who were preparing for a three-year retreat.

Pema taught from Atisha’s lojong (“mind training”) slogans based on the bookicon The Great Path of Awakening by the 19th century Tibetan Teacher Jamgön Kongtrül the Great.

“When I first read the lojong (“mind training”) I was struck by their unusual message that we can use our difficulties and problems to awaken our hearts. Rather than seeing the unwanted aspects of life as obstacles, Jamgön Kongtrül presented them as the raw material necessary for awakening genuine uncontrived compassion.”  – Pema Chödrön

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Below, sharing a few videos from Pema that I hope you will enjoy and benefit from.

Understanding Hard Times


The path of awakening has to include all of our experiences—both pleasurable and painful. In the face of adversity, can we keep from losing heart and instead use it to strengthen our compassion? And when life is going well, is it okay for us just to enjoy it? In this clip, Pema Chödrön expands on ancient wisdom for using the vicissitudes of life to help ourselves and develop compassion for others.

Aspiring to Open-Heartedness


The path of the bodhisattva presents us with many challenging ideals—for example, we’re encouraged to feel compassion for anyone who’s harmed us. In this clip, Pema Chödrön shares how we can be kind to ourselves as we practice opening our hearts at the very moment we feel least inclined to do so.

On Never Losing Heart


The path of awakening has to include all of our experiences—both pleasurable and painful. In the face of adversity, can we keep from losing heart and instead use it to strengthen our compassion? And when life is going well, is it okay for us just to enjoy it? In this clip, Pema Chödrön expands on ancient wisdom for using the vicissitudes of life to help ourselves and develop compassion for others.

On Being Present with Yourself

And three more of my very favorites:

 

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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.