It seems that much is being said about the origins and history of the Mindfulness Movement, and it has been exciting to be in the mix of a new field of theory and practice. But it is the practice side of things that I would like to highlight today, and I speak primarily as a practitioner and a teacher on the front lines. This has a number of ramifications in how the theory and practice of mindfulness and meditation are talked about. And in the context of practice, the diversity of Buddhisms, Enlightenments, and Mindfulnesses are reduced to the bare bones of the practice one is engaging in.
I totally recognize the necessity of being aware of the diversity within Buddhist theory and practice, and I see scholarship as being an absolutely necessary supplement to practice, but from the standpoint of a practitioner, or of a teacher, or of a practitioner in dialogue with other practitioners, there does indeed seem to be one dharma, or at least that is the straightforward simplicity we seek when we actually sit down to practice or share that space with others.
Nevertheless, I am speaking from the specific context of teaching and practicing within Tibetan Buddhism—and within the Tibetan context, from the Kagyu Lineage. But I am also speaking as a teacher of secular mindfulness. How and why that dual role is problematic, yet potentially beneficial, is what I want to untangle today.
The mindfulness movement is in many ways a secular response to, and interpretation of, the Buddhadharma. It is our modern culture’s way of practicing Buddhism, and it is becoming wildly popular. And many within the movement consider it an “expedient means” of Buddhism itself, a code word for Buddhism going undercover in secular society. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been in many ways the pioneer of secular mindfulness, has even recently voiced his intention in developing mindfulness as being explicitly linked “with a universal dharma that is co-extensive, if not identical, with the teachings of the Buddha, the Buddhadharma.”
And as questionable as that is, I am one of those Mindfulness teachers. This is not in the interest of eventually converting everyone to Buddhism, but there is an implicit goal of societal transformation at work, and there is also an implicit assumption of the underlying unity of the various teachings and practices of various Buddhisms.
And these assumptions seem to be shared by many within the movement. Thus far, the most influential voices in the Buddhist world that have impacted the Mindfulness Movement have been from the Theravadin and Zen traditions. Now we are beginning to see the signs of the convergence of the Tibetan traditions with Mindfulness, a meeting that is bound to affect the way that both are practiced. But there has actually already been so much cross-fertilization among western teachers in various convert communities that the connections between Mindfulness and the Pali canon’s notion of sati are virtually as relevant in teaching situations as the Tibetan notions of rigpa in Dzogchen, or of thamal gyi shepa from the Mahamudra tradition. So I am speaking here of mindfulness as an expression of the dharma, and of the dharma as an expression of this confluence of dharma traditions. This conflation would and should have scholars raising their eyebrows, but again, in the classroom and office, this is what is happening.
For example, we have in the Mahamudra tradition the essential meditation instructions of “do not anticipate the future, do not review the past, rest in the essence of whatever arises; rest without clinging, rest without fixation or alteration, rest without judgment, rest without distraction,” and so forth. This kind of instruction and others like it could be heard in a Tibetan shrine room as easily as in a corporate boardroom.
As common and potentially useful as these instructions are, however, I think this brings us to our first encounter with what I am calling, “the original oops.”
The mind instructions of Mahamudra and other such approaches are the capstone of the tradition, and assume a particular course of preparation. Much of the language employed in interventions such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and other presentations of Mindfulness is identical to that in the Mahamudra tradition. And no doubt many of those teaching and practicing mindfulness have benefitted from such instructions.
There is, however, something disingenuous about this approach. Within the tradition itself, mind instruction presupposes years of study and practice—years of ethical training, existential reflection, intensive yogic training, and in many cases scholastic training. After all of this training, the instruction “let go and leave be, rest in the essence of whatever arises” enters in a much different way than for the secular humanist who is taking an eight-week course in mindfulness to reduce stress.
And beyond this disingenuousness it is important to appreciate that the profundity of these instructions lies in their potentially transformative power, and that transformative power leads to experiences that can be quite painful, overwhelming, and destabilizing when one is not adequately prepared for them. And when they do occur, the preparations and context of the tradition provide support and an interpretive framework for resiliency within such adversity. Without the tradition behind it, the original oops of decontextualization can lead to more and more mistakes.
Nevertheless, I think there is a way to make these teachings accessible to a secular audience. As a teacher, and as one who has been through the wringer of this tradition, I find it very helpful to have a road map for this process, a way to relate the instructions to students that is appropriate to their level of understanding and preparation.
We might separate the instruction “rest in the essence of whatever arises” into three stages. The first is what is taught in typical mindfulness interventions. The second stage goes beyond this into an experience of self-transcendence and the perception of the illusory nature of phenomena. The third goes beyond this into the territory of Mahamudra. The same instruction to rest is given in each case, but with a very different result.
These stages echo a common developmental typology of the “Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma” that in the Tibetan tradition spans the entirety of the Buddhadharma and maps one’s development on the path. In my mindfulness work, I have taken a phrase from the Mahayana sutras that illustrates this typology, and have made it a guiding slogan for how I approach mindfulness facilitation in a way that seeks to meet students where they are at, yet also opens the way to potentially deeper and more meaningful waters. The sutra reads, “Mind; there is no mind; mind’s nature is luminous clarity.”
“Mind” refers to the first turning, and works to define the divisions and dynamics of mind, to create a foundation of discipline, attention, and insight into how the mind becomes afflicted and confused, and how that confusion can be remedied and resolved. “There is no mind” refers to the second turning, and the teachings on emptiness, on the illusory nature of both the self and the phenomenal world, and of how compassion (and ethics) spontaneously arises within the recognition of the nonduality of samsara and nirvana. “Mind’s nature is luminous clarity” refers to the third turning, the teachings on Buddha nature. This aspect of mind as luminosity forms the basis of the Vajrayana, and by extension, the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions. In this view, the student rests in “sacred outlook,” in the recognition of herself as a fully enlightened Buddha, and of the phenomenal world as a pure and sacred Buddhafield or pure appearance.
As parts of a developmental typology, these three build on one another. Not so much in a constructive sense, but as a progressive unfolding of deeper familiarization with what already is. Without discipline, focus, and insight into suffering, deeper insight into emptiness and concomitant open-heartedness cannot properly arise. And without the thoroughgoing relativity, egolessness, and non-conceptual compassion, the luminous clarity of the Vajrayana cannot be authentically practiced.
And when I look at the minds of students through this framework, and at the center of gravity of our culture as a whole, several things become quite clear. First of all, we are in the midst of an explosion of “mind” as a discourse. It has taken nearly three hundred years since the beginning of the scientific revolution for mind to be an object of study. And it took another hundred years for the word “consciousness” to be more than a taboo, but here we are, and it is everywhere.
As for our culture’s understanding of “mind, there is no mind,” there are many luminaries who have begun the task of looking at “no mind”: of the contingency of the self, of the constructed and illusory nature of phenomena. This way of seeing reality is making its way into the common consciousness; we have all seen The Matrix, after all.
There is, however, no thorough confidence in compassion and positive action on the basis of that relativity. There are so few knights of faith, as Kierkegaard says, and both the existentialist movement and the critiques of post-modernity failed to bridge this divide and otherwise seem to have fallen out of style. There are so few who can navigate this space, let alone aim and sustain their attention for more than a few minutes at a time.
So before we speak about Mahamudra, about luminous clarity, or about resting in the non-conceptual essence of whatever arises, there is a lot of growth that has to occur, individually and collectively.
I see this lack of maturity very clearly in Mindfulness contexts. There may be teachers and programs that are very well balanced, bringing in the best of meditation techniques, pedagogical tools, balanced knowledge of the state of scientific research, deep experience in diversity issues, ethical trainings, relational and emotional intelligences; but for the Buddhists in the room, there always seems to be an elephant trying to hide. It seems that no one ever asks the question, “are we dreaming?” or “Do things truly exist in they way that they appear?” or “What is this world, and who am I ultimately?”
Are you dreaming? What if everything you remembered having done this morning were a dream? What if the linear solidity of last ten years were thrown into question in an instant of waking up? This is not to say that this is the way we should look at our experience necessarily, but the gap that opens up, and the willingness to rest in that gap is essential if the Mindfulness Movement is going to move forward into deeper territory.
This is pointing to a more ultimate aspect of the “original oops”: the original error or “avidya” that has plagued our minds since the beginningless beginning. The Mahamudra tradition uses the Yogachara school as a theoretical backdrop for its reflections, and in that system what is known as “primordial self-aware wisdom” either recognizes itself as such or fails to do so. At this point the winds of karma pass through the fundamental all-basis consciousness and the inseparable clarity-emptiness of the mind becomes fractured into a duality, with the aspect of clarity becoming misapprehended as phenomena, and the aspect of emptiness being misapprehended as a perceiving subject. From this original oops, karmic action ensues, perpetuating the mistake and propelling awareness further and further from its abiding nature.
Yet that nature is ever-present, and so recognition is possible in each and every moment.
When we look at the Mindfulness movement from this point of view, and without any attempts to address this original oops, Mindfulness facilitation is in many ways a perpetuation of that mistake. But it doesn’t have to be, and I think sensitivity to and secular application of the progression of “mind—no mind” can go a long way towards bringing the profundity of the Mahamudra tradition into the secular Mindfulness movement.
But then there is the original oops of secularism.
To tease out the false distinction of the secular and the sacred, and to trace and untangle the way in which our culture collectively developed rationality, the story of the European enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the protestant reformation, the rise of capitalism and all the interconnected and highly tortured yet brilliant contortions that make up our cultural inheritance is a task for another day.
But imagine, if you will, a small fenced-in yard, with gates in each side. This is the extent of the real, according to the modernist sensibilities of our culture. There are many gates, but imagine just four for now.
On the eastern side is the gate of science, natural reason, and particularly of scientism or scientific materialism. Whatever aspects of the Dharma that lend themselves to transparency to reason and empiricism are admitted through this door.
The northern door is our inheritance from the Protestant Reformation. Whatever aspects of the dharma that can be separated from ritual, from iconography, from mythology, from intercession on the part of saints and sages, spirits and demons, all of these are admitted through the narrow gate, and the sterilized “essence of Buddhism” is admitted, stripped of all of its “mumbo-jumbo”.
And through the western gate of consumerism, of capitalism, of materialism, whatever aspects of the dharma that will make us healthier, happier, longer living, more beautiful, more efficient, and more wealthy are eagerly admitted. One need look no further than the cover of past two Time Magazine Mindfulness features for examples of this.
And at the southern gate, which we might call the gate of humanism, well here we have another problem. The Buddha was asked, “Are you a god?” “No.” “Are you a demon?” “No.” “Are you human?” “No, I am Buddha.” Awake.
Our culture insists on human answers to human problems, we want to “share our humanity” with our teachers, and to discover our humanness in the midst of our path, spiritual or otherwise. This is all necessary to a point, but if the Buddha himself was not human, how much more is there to discover in identifying with and infatuating ourselves with the appearances of the human realm, and elevating the best of them to the seeming sanctity of “humanism?”
And how much can be truly appreciated within the confines of dualistic empiricism? And how can the unspeakable intimacy that is the hallmark of Mahamudra practice—of sharing awareness with ones teacher, heart to heart, mind to mind, how can this be made to fit through the narrow chinks of our modernist protestant prescriptions of reality?
These four walls and their various gates delimit the bounds of reality, and in many ways define the working assumptions of the Mindfulness Movement. But from the perspective of the Mahamudra tradition, it is like a postage stamp floating on the surface of the ocean. To attempt to infuse one with the other would be like pouring an ocean onto your front yard. It would be for the sky to fall.
But this is precisely what must be done. And in some sense, is what has already, and has always already occurred. Chögyam Trungpa famously compared this to the sky turning into a blue pancake that suddenly descended onto our head. Imagine that. Again, it is not so much that we should have the experience of the sky falling, but that there is a gap in our preconceived reality, there is a gap in what we think we know, in what we think we can control, and we are called to wake up and become transparent to the shock of that non-experience. Indeed, the sky has already fallen.
The end of the world as we know it is dependent upon the world as we know it, and the ocean of Mahamudra pervades all of the twists and turns of modernist sensibilities, and is already expressed in the Mindfulness Movement and all of its various methods, virtues, false-promises, insights, blind-spots, successes and failings. As the current Dzongsar Khyentse says, “truth exists because of non-truth.”
All this considered, and with eyes wide open, and with an ear to the authenticating voices of scholarship, I think this is a big oops that cannot be kept from occurring, has already occurred, and is the very nature of all occurrence.
In summary, from the standpoint of the Mahamudra tradition, the original oops is the misrecognition of the innate self-aware clarity-emptiness nature of mind, a mistake that results in dualistic experience. The instructions of Mahamudra point one’s awareness back to that innate nature. But to use such instructions out of context, or to employ them without proper preparation, especially the understanding of egolessness, non-referential compassion, and the illusory nature of all phenomena, is to heap mistake upon mistake, and to potentially cause harm. To then transpose this series of mistakes into a secular framework that has no capacity to accommodate the various and essential aspects of Mahamudra that are beyond concept is to complicate things even further.
But as one of the greatest living masters of the Mahamudra tradition, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso says, “Nor shing, nor shing, yan dak lam la shug,” “Making mistake after mistake, I travel the unmistaken path.” This is not a license for heedlessness, but is an expression of deep faith in the nature of mind and reality, and a voice of wisdom that recognizes timeless insight in the midst of the wild wild west of the Mindfulness Movement. It is precisely in the midst of this wildness that the Mahamudra tradition thrives and makes its home. In the end, then, making mistake after mistake, may we travel the path of the genuine dharma. May it be authentically taught in whatever ways fit the various needs and dispositions of all beings everywhere.