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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?
. . . 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.