by Greg Zwahlen

If you’ve received meditation instruction at a Shambhala center, or at an Insight Meditation Center, a zendo, or the ID project, the very first thing you probably learned was that it is possible to look directly into your own experience, using your breath to stabilize your attention somewhat and as a jumping off point. This technique is endorsed by ??kyamuni Buddha himself, right there in the Satipatthana Sutta (Sanskrit: Sm?tyupasth?na S?tra), so it has to be just basic, foundational Buddhism, right?

Well, yes . . . and no. Perhaps it should be, but it isn’t always. As scholar Leah Zahler explains in Study and Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions, all Tibetan traditions practice ?amatha using the breath as a means of settling the mind. But in the largest tradition, the Geluk, it was viewed as a mere precursor to the real work of analytic reasoning, and the profound potential of the practice itself was not recognized. In other traditions–particularly the Kagyu and Nyingma–the profundity of the practice was recognized, but the practice itself was sort of “kicked upstairs” by both. It was taught in the context of Mah?mudr? and Dzogchen Semde (respectively), and as such it was often accessible only after one had completed hundreds of thousands of repetitions of ritual practices and committed to a personal guru.
Recently I came across a passage in one of Stephen Batchelor’s earlier books, The Faith to Doubt, in which he described his personal experience of this state of affairs. Batchelor was a monk for a number of years in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in India. He writes:

. . . the institute in which I was studying hosted an insight meditation (vipassana) retreat led by U Goenka, the well-known Indian teacher from the Burmese tradition of U Ba Khin. The method of meditation taught by Goenka is a highly effective technique of developing concentrated mindfulness of body-sensations and feelings, viewed in their aspects of being impermanent, unsatisfactory, and selfless. This retreat had an overwhelming impact on me. Within the short period of ten days my consciousness was unquestionably altered, and I gained direct experiential insights into the meaning of the Buddhist teachings unlike anything I had ever realized through the methods taught by my Tibetan teachers.

This experience made me question some of the basic claims of the Tibetan lamas. The Tibetans maintain that their tradition alone preserves all the teachings of Buddhism: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. . . [However, the] systematic practice of mindfulness was not preserved in the Tibetan traditions. The Gelugpa lamas know about such methods and can point to long descriptions of mindfulness in their Abhidharma works, but the living application of the practice has largely been lost. (Only in dzog-chen, with the idea of “awareness” [rig pa] do we find something similar.) For many Tibetans the very term “mindfulness” (sati in Pali, rendered in Tibetan by dran pa) has come to be understood almost exclusively as “memory” or “recollection.”
.  . . What I was looking for was a practice of formless meditation and a place to train over an extended period of time. But at that time I could not find a teacher within any of the Tibetan traditions who taught such a practice without the embellishments of guru-devotion, tantric ritual, mantra, visualization, and so on for which I felt little affinity. The Tibetan argument that such practices were necessary as a basis for proceeding into the formless meditations of mahamudra or dzogchen were unconvincing. I only had to look at the Theravada or Zen systems to see that a formless meditation was quite happily practiced without that basis. By this time I found it quite impossible to accept the Tibetans’ critique of the other traditions and their own claims to superiority. The lamas persisted in refuting only antiquated notions of the other Buddhist traditions- notions which had been preserved in Tibet for centuries-but had little understanding of the current condition of the schools they were criticizing (pgs 8, 13).

Chogyam Trungpa, the late Tibetan Buddhist master, recognized this problem, and for this reason he introduced the profundity of the “direct experience” approach to the very beginning of his path. It is given pride of place as the cornerstone of practice in Shambhala centers today. This departure from the Tibetan Buddhist norm was one of his most valuable contributions, in my opinion. Although it was radical in the Tibetan context, to me it seems clear that it was a longer overdue return to the core instructions of the Buddha. A number of younger Kagyu and Nyingma lamas–Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, and Tsokyni Rinpoche, to name a few–have since followed his example in this regard.

I consider myself a practitioner in the Indo-Tibetan tradition in which I’ve been trained by Tibet lamas and their close disciples. I’ve put in a great deal of study and practice in that tradition over the last eight years. But over the last couple of years or so I’ve undergone a subtle realignment in my approach to and understanding of Buddhadharma, based on the realization that “Tibetan Buddhism” is not quite as all-encompassing of the Indian Buddhist tradition as it believes itself to be. I have a new appreciation for the Therav?da tradition and the value to all Buddhists of the common Buddhist heritage that it has carefully preserved.
Today, many of us are in the enviable position of being able to access nearly the full range of Buddhist teachings that have been preserved. Some people worry that this opens the door to a sort of promiscuous “mixing” of distinct lineages into an ill-advised mess. To some degree this concern is well-founded. But it should be remembered that in India there was an enormous amount of diversity of thought and practice which often mingled in the same monasteries–?r?vakas of various views, Yog?c?rins, M?dhyamikas. To some extent the perceived separation of the various Buddhist traditions today is based more on geography and culture than on any fundamental incompatibility. There are real differences, to be sure, but those differences don’t necessarily all break down cleanly along recognizable “lineage” lines. The contemporary rapprochement can potentially benefit all Buddhists. We also have the modern disciplines of academia at our disposal, and they are of immense potential benefit to this great sorting out process.
Sangharakshita has been a pioneer in conceiving and implementing this approach, and I admire his work in this area. An Englishman, the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, he calls it “back to basics”–an effort “to clarify what all Buddhist schools held in common: the essential principles and practices that run through the whole tradition.” I have no experience of his organization, but I’ve read a number of his books, and they are a very rigorous effort to do just that. I highly recommend them.
This is also the approach Ethan tends to take at the ID project. We’ve talked about it a great deal over the years, and I think the results speak for themselves.
So the glib answer to the question of why I’m not a “Tibetan Buddhist” is because I am, of course, not a Tibetan. But even the glib response makes a point that, unfortunately, seems to be often overlooked as the various Buddhist traditions are transmitted to the west–we are not living in premodern societies, and (despite how mind-bogglingly extensive the Tibetan tradition is) our opportunities for study and practice are in some respects more vast than those of pre-1959 Tibet. Our practice of dharma can benefit by reflecting this reality. Thankfully, as more and more people become accomplished, this will happen to a greater and greater degree.
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