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.

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