This seminar was originally published on the Chronicles in 2009, and re-posted to this new site on November 21, 2017
About Meditation: The Path of the Buddha
From a study guide prepared by Carolyn Gimian
In 1974 during the inaugural session of The Naropa Institute, Chögyam Trungpa presented this course on meditation. In addition to attending the class, students participated in meditation sessions throughout the week and attended discussion groups with his assistants. His course became the basis for the introductory meditation class that was given for many years at Naropa to incoming students. The course was held weekly during the same period of time that Rinpoche was teaching The Tibetan Buddhist Path, which will be presented on the Chronicles starting in January 2010.
Summary of Talk One: Meditation Instruction
Original date of the talk: June 12, 1974
Body of talk: 32 min. No Discussion.
In this first talk, Chögyam Trungpa gives a general orientation to meditation in the Buddhist tradition and gives meditation instruction. This is essentially the same basic instruction that he gave throughout the time he was in the United States. It is also virtually identical with the meditation instruction that was the basis of Shambhala Training and is still used extensively, along with other approaches.
Ground: In this course, we are going to learn the technique of meditation as it was presented and recommended by the Buddha himself.
- This approach is meditation as a way of life rather than purely as a practice.
- In order to get something out of the course, commitment is needed on the part of the students.
- We can’t reject ourselves before we know what we are. Meditation allows us to realize and understand ourselves, without either chickening out, “rejecting ourselves,”or congratulating ourselves. This requires a sort of heroism.
- This approach to meditation is based on bhavana, a Sanskrit term that means exertion or discipline. Unless you are willing to discipline yourself through practice, you are in a hopeless situation.
- Through practice, you see the colours of your own existence in a very down to earth way.
- Chögyam Trungpa speaks about how he has personally gained wisdom and clarity from practicing meditation in this way.
Path: The meaning of shamatha meditation as peace or relaxation.
- Meditation is three-fold: shamatha, vipashyana, and shamatha-vipashyana. We begin with shamatha.
- Shamatha means the development of mindfulness. We practice mindfulness together or individually when we meditate.
- Discovering the meaning of mindfulness is up to you personally.
- Meditation is paying attention, or being mindful, of what’s happening. The main thing happening in meditation is your breath, so it’s paying attention to your breath, your breathing.
- Breath here is natural breath, natural breathing, which is connected with relaxation and peace.
- Shamatha literally means the development of peace. Peace in this case is not related to the politics of war and peace or some trippy, psychedelic experience of peace. In this case, peace is related to non-action.
- Peace arises from the application of exertion, or virya in Sanskrit, and patience, or kshanti.
Fruition: Meditation Instruction itself
- Posture: Preferable to sit on a cushion on the floor, but you may use a chair if you have leg problems. Sit crosslegged in a comfortable posture. Trying to sit in lotus posture is unnecessary.
Relax, straighten your spine and your neck, not in an extreme fashion but with deliberateness. Think that you are about to propose marriage to someone. Semi-relaxed but deliberate, friendly, seductive posture.
- Hands: folded in meditation mudra or placed on your knees in the mind-relaxing posture.
- Breath: First listen to your breathing. After a few minutes, settle down and begin to discipline your state of awareness.
- When you begin to wander, focus on your breathing but don’t force yourself. Don’t be too uptight. Go along with your breathing: natural breath, not a big deal, very simply. Remember that you’re about to address your lover.
- Open your mouth a little bit, as if you’re saying the word “eh.”
- Go out with your breath. As your breath goes out and dissolves into space, don’t try to follow it out too far.
- Let it be.
- Then there’s a gap and your breath comes in automatically. Don’t try to come back. Just let it be.
Thoughts: All kinds of thoughts arise: future plans, conversations with friends, etc. Let them just come through. Don’t label them as bad or good.
- You begin to find a sense of openness. Your thoughts are neither threatening nor particularly helpful. It’s like hearing city traffic outside your window. The traffic of your thoughts is just basic chatter that goes on in the universe.
Summary of Talk Two: Shamatha or Abiding in Peace
Original date of the talk: June 17, 1974
Body of talk: 32 min. Overall Length: 72 min.
An in-depth look at shamatha meditation practice. Topics include the individual nature of the Buddhist journey, the meaning of peace, and the understanding of meditation as a natural act that involves simplicity, precision and directness. The questions and answers relate both to this talk and to the meditation instruction given previously.
Ground: Celebrating the lonely journey
- In meditation practice, you are working with yourself, by yourself, without entertainment, without feedback or encouragement. This is true whether you practice in a group or by yourself.
- You may think that you will get some benefit from the good vibrations that someone else experiences, but you can’t hitchhike onto someone else’s experience.
- You are in your own vehicle, called your body, and there’s no room for anyone else. Someone else can tell you that others have done the same thing. That is the only help they can give.
- We could view that as severe and difficult or as the basis for heroism and conviction. We can celebrate this lonely journey: that is the heart of meditation.
- We might want to ask, “Why meditate?” but first we need to work with the practice in a simple, direct way. Openness and inquisitiveness are
- very important, but we have to start simply, with the practice itself.
This is like understanding very simply that gold is yellow, metallic, heavy and valuable and that it’s used to make jewelry, rather than considering the social, historical and political implications of gold.
Path: Understanding shamatha or shine (Tibetan) as abiding in peace.
- Abiding in peace is the literal meaning of shamatha. This is not peace as opposed to war and it has nothing to do with getting high on peace.
- The Buddha was a very eccentric person who actually attained enlightenment, which is almost unbelievable to us. But he actually did it, so we have no choice but to follow that example.
- In one of the sutras, the Buddha said that anyone who was practicing shamatha was building a staircase to enlightenment. That requires exact measuring and careful carpentry. We might ask “Staircase to what?” But the “what” doesn’t really matter. Just a staircase. Let us simplify the situation: no promise, no blame.
- When you sit and breathe and work with the out breath, you are building the steps. There is enormous precision, enormous subtlety.
Fruition: The deliberateness and directness of meditation practice overcomes subconscious gossip and allows us to actually experience our lives.
- Ordinarily, when we try to develop mindfulness, we tell ourselves “I’m going to do it. I’m going to breathe and be aware of breathing. I’m trying to get my mind together. Then, finally, I’m going to focus my attention towards my breath. Then I’m going to watch what’s happening.” Then you question whether you’re doing it right.
- Meditation is a one shot deal that does not require all this gossip and preparation. You just do it.
- In the samsaric world, we think we have done a lot, but often we haven’t actually done anything at all.
- By practicing shamatha in a simple way, simply going along with the practice and working with it, we overcome these exaggerated trips. We begin to appreciate sight, sound, smell, and every experience in the same simple, direct way.
- Most of the questions we have about how we’re doing are an attempt to secure the basic ground of ego. Instead, the approach of shamatha is making a statement. It is extremely direct and deliberate.
Audience Question and Answer
- Is physical pain an expression of ego?
- Is it all right to meditate lying down if you can stay awake?
- Can you talk further about following the out breath? (This includes a wonderful discussion of sensorial literacy)
- What is the relationship of skepticism and openness?
- You said to approach meditation with deliberateness. Doesn’t that interfere with process?
- Is it ok to move and change position in meditation? Is it better to sit and endure the pain?
- Recommended: “Continuing Your Confusion,” pages 14 to 34, from The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.
- Alternate: “Recollecting the Present,” pages 66 to 87, from The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.
- Optional: “The Only Way,” pages 3 to 13, from The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.
Summary of Talk Three: State of Mind
Original date of the talk: June 24, 1974
Body of talk: 40 min. Overall Length: 72 min.
Chögyam Trungpa discusses sems, lodro, and rigpa—aspects of intelligence, or the mechanics of mind, as well as the development of ego through the five skandhas. He also talks about working with these aspects of mind in one’s meditation practice.
Ground: Understanding our state of mind, or the mechanics of mind, helps us to see how we relate with our own world and the phenomenal world in general.
- When we talk about mind, we are referring to different levels in the state of consciousness. These are not higher or lower but rather the different functions of mind.
- Sems The first function is literal mind, the simple everyday thought process that takes place. Before you drive, you check to see that you have the car keys. Basic intelligence functions in everyday life situations. You organize things so that you don’t encounter unexpected chaos and problems. This sense of making sure that everything’s under control is called sems in Tibetan, which means “whatever can communicate to the object world.”
- Lodro Looking into unexplored areas of learning and working out the logics is another area of mind. We might have a mental blockage, thinking that we can’t understand something, but if we push ourselves, we usually can learn things and become a scholar. That use of intellect is called lodro is Tibetan or mati in Sanskrit. Lo means “intelligence,” and dro is “warming up” the intelligence. There is a sense of heat or warmth and we don’t chicken out. We can use our mind or our intellect to understand the logic of things.
- Rigpa Beyond intellect, there is another layer of mind that is connected with fundamental intelligence. In Tibetan this is rigpa; in Sanskrit it is vidya. Rigpa means “knowledge that can comprehend subtle scientific experiences and demonstrations.” Rigpa is experience as well as referring to specific disciplines, such as the rigpa of scientific knowledge. It is very sharp, precise and proud of itself. It is like a computer, not of mathematics, but of self-respect, wholesomeness and command. Rigpa comprehends the fundamental sense of survival. It sees dualism and the sense of pattern. It comprehends a sense of being. Professor Guenther refers to noetic mind, which is rigpa or vidya. You have a sense of the actuality of being, which brings relaxation and less fear of existence. It is the pride of ego.
Path: The Five Skandhas
- The mind also relates to or is divided into another five processes, the five skandhas. Skandha means heap. We don’t actually exist as one entity but we are a collection of things jumbled together, a heap, like a heap of garbage.
- Skandha of Form: The first skandha, the skandha of form, is basic uncertainty, basic bewilderment. Who is this being? Who or what are we? We think we exist, but we have no idea how or why and we experience this uncertainty all the time. We don’t feel good. We feel clumsy and uptight. That is actually our state of being all the time. It’s not that something has gone wrong. It’s like a self-existing Danish blue cheese that is constantly fermenting itself. We don’t really exist but we are trying to make ourselves exist.
- Skandha of Feeling: We try to hold onto the bag of sand in our hands, even though we know it’s made out of many grains of sand. This is a primitive state of emotion, in the sense of feeling out the texture of life to see which are going to be kind and harmonious. The chaos and non-entity are trying to create a bag or a container, a territory of some kind.
- Skandha of Impulse: There is a desire to communicate, to make a leap. We try to communicate with the message of our existence coming back at us. If the message is aggressive, we try to fight. If it’s yielding, we include it and celebrate it. We are looking for reinforcement, a response to our situation.
- Skandha of Concept: We try to name and conceptualize the shade of impulse that come to us. We give authority to our impulses, making them a secretary or a general. We begin to label them so that they will protect us. We choose a particular diet or behavior to reinforce ourselves.
- Skandha of Consciousness: To maintain ourselves, we hold onto subconscious gossip, discursive thoughts, glimpses of the past and future expectations. The thought process acts as a screening process for what is let in. You finally have your castle of ego and you become the king or queen of the ego realm.
- The five skandhas happen in every moment of experience. This process of building our ego takes place all the time.
Fruition: The practice of meditation is a process of undoing the skandhas step by step. Meditation is the only way to deal with such a vast subject as our state of mind. There is no other way to work with the big project of mind than through the practice of meditation.
This project has been the battlefield of enlightenment and samsara for billions of years. It has become the heart of spirituality. We should work on the big project first rather than looking for little side tracks to occupy us. We can use our naked hand to deal with our naked mind, very directly and precisely.
The attitude is not so much to destroy ego but to work with that situation as a stepping stone. The only material we have is ego at this point. There’s not another way to work with spirituality. So we should celebrate that we have ego.
We have some hope of attaining enlightenment, because we have ego, which is the starting point. That is the attitude of a warrior. We see the practice of meditation as an undoing, unlearning process.
Audience Question and Answer
- Do all perceptions, actions, thoughts and feelings arise from a state of bewilderment?
- What thoughts should I entertain?
- Should we try to perfect the three aspects of mind: sems, lodro, and rigpa?
- Are these three parts of mind like functions of the five skandhas? How do the two relate?
- Is good diet purely a concept?
- Is there some way we can make use of the will?
- Vidya still comes from a sense of duality or survival, so how can it lead to enlightenment?
- What is the difference between cutting through ego and destroying the ego?
- Is there any place for entertainment?
- When I sit my subconscious gossip is screaming, ranting and raving. How can I deal with that energy?
- I get sleepy when I sit. Is it ok to use coffee or other stimulants?
- Can you tell me how prajna fits into this?
- Where does boredom fit in the system of the skandhas?
“The Spiritual Battlefield,” in The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Volume Two, pages 461 to 469, is an edited version of this talk.
Summary of Talk Four: Vipashyana or Insight Meditation
Original date of the talk: July 1, 1974
Body of talk: 37 min. Overall Length: 71 min.
How the practice of shamatha meditation naturally leads to the experience of vipashyana, or insight meditation. A discussion of mindfulness and awareness and how vipashyana experience leads to the experiential discovery of egolessness.
Ground: The simplicity and directness of shamatha dissolves complications, leading to the experience of vipashyana.
- Vipashyana is regarded as a further experience of egolessness and is connected with developing prajna, or “transcendent knowledge.” Vipashyana deals with one’s inquisitive mind and exploring one’s mind.
- We often think that we should control ourselves constantly, overcoming unnecessary habits by tightening up. Vipashyana provides a sense of freedom and enlightenment, in contrast to that tightness, which becomes a problem.
- The inquisitiveness of vipashyana encourages us to explore and use our sense consciousnesses, including the basic sense of mind, or sems.
- All of this arises from working with the basic simplicity of shamatha, keeping our attention with the breath and keeping our experience as simple and precise as possible.
- The precision of shamatha is very wakeful and brings us back to our breath when we drift away in thought. In this way, the complications dissolve by themselves.
- The precision of shamatha is very wakeful and brings us back to our breath when we drift away in thought. In this way, the complications dissolved by themselves
Path: The shift to vipashyana as clear seeing and the beginning of meditation-in-action
- Vipashyana or lhagthong in Tibetan means “development of insight” or literally “clear seeing.” Shamatha has a very narrow focus. Vipashyana arises from slightly extending and opening, experiencing the environment around our practice, around our breath. The sense of being is extended into a state of awareness.
- The vanguard of vipashyana may be a sense that someone is watching you or you may feel heaviness or awkwardness in your body. This comes from feeling that something is taking place around you apart from the object of concentration.
- Vipashyana is the seed or the beginning of meditation-in-action where we extend our state of awareness to everyday life situations. If we do this too soon, it becomes entertainment. We take excessive pride in meditating while we’re washing the dishes or gardening.
- The experience of shamatha is described as mindfulness, or being fully there with our technique and completely watchful. Awareness, which is more expansive, comes from vipashyana. We might lose our awareness if we are overly mindful. An example of this is that, if you are watching the road and the car in front of you too carefully, or with a narrow focus, when you drive, then you might miss your exit off the highway.
- In Tibetan, mindfulness is trenpa and awareness is sheshin. Trenpa literally means “recollection, memory, and sharpness.” Sheshin is literally “knowing as it is.” It is necessary to have both working together, particularly paying more attention to sheshin experience as you develop in your practice of meditation.
- Rather than shifting the technique of meditation, if students stay with the shamatha technique, vipashyana will develop naturally.
- The analogy is again from driving a car: that at some point you feel that you are one with the car; you almost feel it’s an extension of your body, rather than feeling a separation of you driving the vehicle.
Fruition: When the experience of awareness or sheshin develops in you, you begin to experience nonexistence and the sense that the discipline is self-existing rather than something you apply. You are gliding into the practice rather than struggling.
- One should get into shamatha practice fully and thoroughly, being faithful to the technique. This requires a sense of fearlessness and cutting through boredom. From that, one begins to feel the ease and comfort of practice so that one can glide into it.
- The clean, wholesome, healthy quality of practice ignites further wakefulness in one’s vipashyana practice.
- The purpose of the training is to become a warrior, so we keep our basic being and our alertness intact, so that the warrior does not become a worrier.
- At this level, the practice of meditation is training the mind so that there are no mysterious areas left. We investigate every area of our mind and experience. In this way, vipashyana brings us down to earth. We begin to realize that sight, smell, sound and all the other sense experiences are very direct, literal and simple.
Audience Question and Answer
- Meditation seems necessary, but so does skillful action to deal with the tremendous suffering in life. I am impatient for that action on a bigger level, seeing so much suffering in the world.
- Is there a technique in everyday life equivalent to shamatha?
- If there is a danger of entertaining ourselves by meditating on daily tasks, what should we attend to in daily life?
- Is there a difference in the technique of shamatha and vipashyana?
- To move from shamatha to vipashyana, does one need to push in some way?
- Where do shamatha and vipashyana fit in terms of the Hinayana and Mahayana paths?
- In Cutting Through you say that vipashyana works with emotions. (See 167-170.) Could you explain?
- Do your muscles atrophy when you sit for months? What about exercise?
- In meditation, I’m distracted by colors and visual images when my eyes are open. Will this go away with time?
- A warrior is usually associated with a purpose or territory. Without that what is the motivation for the warrior?
- (Jack Kornfield:) Some meditative techniques begin with vipashyana, based on mindfulness increasing mindfulness, which extends into prajna. Is this a valid technique?
- Does intellect develop alongside of meditation?
- Is there a way to reduce ego in our day to day acts?
- If vipashyana cuts through mystery, it seems to leave everything very cold and dry. There’s no more sense of mystery or beauty.
Recommended: “The Portable Stage Set,” pages 88 to 104 from The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.
Alternate: “Boredom: Full or Empty?” pages 105 to 115 from The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.
Optional: “Loneliness,” Chapter Four in the 1974 Hinayana-Mahayana Transcripts includes an extensive discussion of trenpa and sheshin.
Summary of Talk Five: The Dawn of Enlightenment
Original date of the talk: July 8, 1974
Overall Length: 58 min.
All of these talks are experiential. In the last talk, Chögyam Trungpa gives the audience a taste of the desolation and power of shunyata or emptiness and how this experience leads to the dawning of buddha nature and the first glimpse of enlightenment.
Ground: In an ordinary sense, mind functions to try to prove our existence, but in reality, mind doesn’t exist and the phenomenal world is not there, and we function on the level of non-existence.
- We assume that we exist and that we can manipulate our world, as if the world is made up of flexible, yielding phenomena. This is a big problem.
- Actually, the phenomenal world is not there. It is up to us to explore the possibility that the phenomenal world doesn’t exist. If you are really brave, you can look into your own non-existence as well. But since that’s very threatening, we can start with the non-existence of the environment.
- There’s no territory, there’s no maker of the universe, and no organism that takes care of you or will destroy you. We can experience and explore this on the phenomenological level, through the practice of meditation.
- Through practice, we may find that we are dancing with space, but what is space? We experience space purely from the point of view of boundary, or reference point.
- In reality, trying to explore non-existence is trying to do the impossible. Why are we questioning or exploring this at all? We don’t know. We have to accept the nonsense, uncertainty, confusion and being at a loss.
- Understanding that there is nothing to understand is the dharma, the truth, of the situation.
Path: Once we realize that there is nothing to understand, we begin to sense the environment, the empty ground and empty space in which the dawn of enlightenment can take place. This experience is the beginning of realizing shunyata, or emptiness.
- When we stop looking for understanding and we don’t even try to be, we begin to experience an enormous vacuum or space. The dawn of enlightenment cannot take place without that sense of desolation and meaninglessness to begin with.
- Then, you begin to experience the dawn or glimmer of light, which in Western language is called the Star of Bethlehem. A birth of something is taking place. There’s a star in the deep black midnight sky.
- The practice of meditation and awareness is based on that experience of vacantness or non-existence. Within that, we experience emotions and fantasies of all kinds, which are merely expressions of that dawn of enlightenment.
- Having understood that there’s no self, the dawn of enlightenment occurs. You can work with your awareness. Unreality has created a reality at that point. Such experience is called shunyata, or emptiness. The whole thing is empty, non-existent; therefore, it does exist by itself.
Fruition: Out of the sense of loneliness and desolation, we may become an enormously powerful hero or samurai. Having seen the dawn of enlightenment, you begin to express tathagatagarbha or buddha nature. However, our life is still desolate and empty.
- It’s painful to discover the truth of non-existence and to experience the loneliness on top of that. We might twist that into thinking that nonexistence means we won’t have to feel anything or we can become one with things, to get rid of the pain.
- Instead, you begin to experience another Star of David. A beautiful, extensive desert arises out of desolation and darkness. Above that desert, you see a star in the sky that looks down on you and mocks you, telling you the truth of your state of being, which is further pain and desolation.
- This sense of shunyata can only be realized through the sitting practice of meditation and the vipashyana experience. You begin to realize that even the techniques you’ve used in your practice are a con. You find yourself sitting, doing absolutely nothing, completely ripped open and naked.
- However, you don’t disappear; you are unable even to die. Instead there is a brave and powerful state of existence that doesn’t want to give up or give in, although it’s lost its reference point completely. This is the discovery of tathagatagarbha or buddha nature.
- When you experience the true sense of aloneness, you discover that the entire cosmos, the universe, is absolutely empty. It doesn’t help you or keep you company. Such utter loneliness becomes companionship.
- When you experience the true sense of aloneness, you discover that the entire cosmos, the universe, is absolutely empty. It doesn’t help you or keep you company. Such utter loneliness becomes companionship.
- You don’t get a reward or get better by practicing meditation. The truth is this desolation and realizing that a further dissolving process is necessary.
Audience Question and Answer
- If all we have in store is further desolation, why do we keep sitting?
- Where does the action of the Bodhisattva come into all this?
- After you experience aloneness, what’s left?
- Is there such a thing as grace in the Buddhist tradition?
- Will I have a teacher in my head until I become fully conscious?
- What do you think about the hermit tradition?
- Is it important to read about shunyata as well as to experience it in practice?
- You seem to be emphasizing the form is emptiness and emptiness is form aspects of shunyata. What about form as form and emptiness as emptiness?
- When you speak of non-existence, what existence is there to compare it to?
- Is there a correlation between shunyata and the fourth moment?
- This class was great at first. Now it’s very painful. Doesn’t some meaningfulness exist in the relationship of us being here, even if nothing exists?
- If we’re totally alone, how do we take refuge in the Buddha?
- Is non-existence more like a dream or a vacuum?
Recommended: “The Star of Bethlehem,” pages 35 to 52, from The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.
Alternate: “Loneliness”, pages 126 to 144, from The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.
Optional: “Creating a Little Gap,” pages 145 to 153, from The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.
Summary of Practice Day Talk
Original date of the talk: June 19, 1974
Body of talk: 10 min. No Discussion.
This is an introductory talk given by Chögyam Trungpa on the practice day, or nyinthun, during the Message of Milarepa Seminar at Karme Choling, Vermont.
Chögyam Trungpa refers to the practice day as a nyinthun. We sometimes now use nyinthuns to refer to partial days of sitting, but at this time, it generally referred to a whole day dedicated to the sitting practice of meditation, with walking meditation between sessions of practice and breaks for lunch and tea included.
- Meditation practice is a way of knowing oneself rather than a way of shielding oneself from one’s neurosis. It is not regarded as particularly pleasurable nor is it a way of inflicting pain on ourselves.
- Meditation is a way of preventing further karmic seeds from being sown. Normally, any activity we pursue tends to sow the seeds of further activities. But here, in the sitting practice of meditation, we are doing nothing but relating to ourselves.
- A whole day of practice provides less hassle because we don’t have to plan what we’ll do when we are done practicing. The point of intensive practice, including retreats, is to try to dissolve sitting into non-sitting, so that there is a fuzzy boundary between meditation and post-meditation.
- Siting meditation often brings up irritation. We tend to replay our experiences of pain and pleasure, yesterday’s events and what we’ll do tomorrow. Resentment and all kinds of questions about why we are practicing may arise. These are regarded as natural occurrences, not something to avoid.
- One wouldn’t expect a state without thoughts in meditation. Rather thoughts become transparent, a natural part of the pattern of mind and life, rather than heavy-handed. We should accommodate all the thoughts so that they become transparent and neutral.
- Avoid unnecessary chatter during a day of practice.
- Stick it out. Stay until the end.
- In general, the point of practice is not to develop special awareness but to have natural intelligence operating all of the time. Be present rather than watching oneself.
- Readings: “Dathun Letter”; The Path Is the Goal: A Handbook of Buddhist Meditation.