woman meditating

Mindfulness and Awareness

I’d like to explore a comparative analysis of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (CTR) and his son the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (SMR) describing mindfulness and awareness. First, a few stipulations.

Even contemplating this question, I am struck with the enormity of it, and the many facets.  In some contexts, ‘mindfulness and awareness’ is shorthand for the entirety of the Buddhist teachings, with it’s incredible richness of iconography and methods.  It is like a huge diamond, and I will always only be seeing one or two facets.

In the popular lexicon, ‘mindfulness’ has become synonymous with meditation, and a general sense of slowing down and paying attention to your world, while in the Buddhist teachings mindfulness is an aspect or quality of the mind. The Western assimilation of the term has come to mean something you do, while the more traditional Buddhist sense of the word is something you are. In this essay I have come to use mindfulness to be inextricably connected to meditation, being guided by the editorial organization in the indexes or chapter headings of the things I’m reading to research the topic.

If one were to compare the two teachers, CTR and SMR, in any way, which is a stupid and unfair endeavor, let’s just stipulate.  If one were to, I would want to say that traditionally the lineage holder applies correctives and antidotes to excesses or misunderstandings among the students of his predecessors. I once suggested that SMR was doing such a thing, at dinner with a friend, and they threw down their napkin and stalked out of the room.  But any teacher will do that on an ongoing basis with their students.   Let’s just say that at the very least, laying one teacher next to the other leads to an awareness of different facets of the same subject, thus showing the depth and profundity of the Buddhist teachings, or dharma.

There isn’t much orthodoxy in how dharma, or the teachings of Buddhism, are presented.  I want to say that for Buddhism, the orthodoxy is all in the ritual and practice, while describing the view and outcome of practice, within broad parameters, is entirely up to each.  There’s a super exacting quality to rituals such as abhishekas, or empowerment blessings, for example, but the actual textual teachings are presented in a way that is idiosyncratic and particular to each teacher who teaches them anew.

Continuing on this endless list of stipulations, one tenet of Buddhism is that each student examines the dharma for him or herself, and finds the truth of it for themselves.  Another tenet is that the teachings are as vast and deep as the ocean, or the sky. Still another is that Buddhism traditionally morphs in form and style from country to country where it is adopted. These are all examples of the aspect of dharma I am slipping around on, in saying that each teacher teaches it in their own way — that the Buddha dharma and the Shambhala dharma equally are amorphous, fluid, and unfindable.


There is tremendous industry around CTR, such that you can go to The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, look in the index and find everything CTR said about mindfulness at the Vajradhatu seminaries, or 3-month study and practice retreats he led between 1973 and 1986.

Casting about in the index I find on pages 174-175 of the first volume of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma what the index calls Mindfulness: threefold.   That seemed like a good place to start.

The point of shamatha is to free ourselves from ill-birth or distortion.  We carry ourselves in the so-called ordinary world in a very distorted manner.  These distortions range from large-scale emotional upheavals, the crimes we commit, and the pain that we cause other people, to simply being unaware of what is happening in our everyday life.  . . . the practice of shamatha can change our way of being.

In this, CTR is pointing to some great levels of practice accomplishment, which are, however, always available to each of us at a moment’s notice. Having said that, — if we practice meditation we will see the world clearly for the first time, be master of our emotions, stop causing pain to other people, and change our way of being? Having practiced for 30 some years, and known many meditators in that time, I can say, yes and no. Yes, in that all the serious meditators I know, know how to take a joke.  This is the result of genuine shamatha or meditation practice, which tends to put things in perspective.  No, on the other hand, because awareness of one’s neurotic tendencies does not automatically guarantee their release.

Later in the same book CTR goes deeper into one of the purposes of mindfulness:

Shamatha is geared to the idea of freeing ourselves physically and psychologically from the three lower realms – the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, and the animal realm – by paying attention to what is happening with us both psychologically and physically.

Of course, this needs more context to make much sense, and in the Profound Treasury there’s a footnote about the 6 realms of existence, but I don’t need much convincing to know I want to avoid the hell realm. It may or may not be worse than the cold Centennial Pool at 7:30 on a wintery Saturday morning, or trying to read Beckett alone in bed with bad eyesight, which are the two signs in my life that I am hell bound.

CTR goes on to explain how three principles of mindfulness – mindfulness of body, speech, and mind, can release us from the 3 lower realms respectively.

At this stage, your understanding of the three lower realms does not have to be precise and clear, and you do not need to spend time sorting them out.  The question is, how are you going to free yourselves from those realms?  The way to do that, always, is to sit and meditate, and through that to develop a state of awareness whether you are meditating or not. . . .

He goes on to give specific advice about practicing shamatha with the view that you can take all the impatience and irritation of it as part of the practice.

He goes forward at great length and depth to describe the mechanisms of mindfulness, the release of defense mechanisms and subsequent relaxation into and awareness of the present.  He concludes, or the editor Judith Lief concludes, “once . . . unconditional mindfulness happens, you are here and you are automatically sane.”

You are automatically sane? We are told elsewhere, by the son Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, that mindfulness like that comes and goes in flickers, and your job as a meditator is to stabilize the flickers into a more continuous presence of mind.  So sanity, yes, but a temporary sanity that subsides when the unconditional mindfulness flickers off.

SMR speaks about mindfulness and awareness as intrinsic aspects of the mind. “So in meditating properly, we’re strengthening aspects of our mind that are already there.” (In Chapter 5 of Turning the Mind into an Ally, P. 50).  He emphasizes consistent and regular practice, and uses an analogy of weight training to show how meditation practice gradually impacts the mind.  His mindfulness also has three aspects, but here they are familiarity, remembering, and non-distraction.  He painstakingly recounts the early phases of meditation practice, with its’ wanderings, and how these three aspects interact to counteract the wild tendencies of an untrained mind.

But listen to the Sakyong describing deeper stages of shamatha meditation, later in Turning the Mind into an Ally:

I went snorkeling recently, and it was a very vivid experience. My body felt light and buoyant, and there was a penetrating clarity to the sunlight shining through the turquoise water on the fish and the coral.

Mindfulness and awareness bring us into such a space, and as we stay there longer, that space gets bigger and bigger . . .. Eventually the dualistic mind exhausts itself. We no longer need an object of meditation. The natural quality of meditation relaxes into boundless, unimpeded freedom and space. The dualistic struggle is over. This is peace. (p. 56-57)

Talk about your extravagant promises.  From my experience as a meditator there are aspects of habitual mind which are malleable and easily weeded out, and there are other aspects which are as obdurate as a 300-meter cliff face.  You work with all that and it takes forever.  Literally for as long as you have breath. And then on to the next round apparently.   Not to disagree with SMR, but the connection to absolute mind can sometimes become obscured when looking at your own experience.  That’s why the teacher is so important, to remind us peons what we’re aiming for.

The enormity of the subject makes it treacherous to draw conclusions based on such a small sampling of the two teachers’ writings. But I want to say that even in his flights of meditative accomplishment, SMR’s mindfulness is grounded in the body experience and sits much closer to ordinary awareness than does CTR’s.

Let me dip into SMR’s seminary transcripts.

Sometimes Mahayana or Vajrayana practitioners think they don’t need to do shamatha anymore.  But even if you do high level tantric practices you have to be able to stay with the visualization.  Practice never develops if you are constantly spacing out and the visualization of the moment is always coming and going.  The mind that can truly do the practice of bodhichitta or the practice of mahamudra, which are much more difficult than shamatha, should find shamatha to be easy – really easy.  Otherwise it would be like saying, “I can pick up a fifty-pound rock, but I can’t pick up a pebble.”  (1999 Seminary Transcripts, Teachings from the Sutra Tradition – Book One)

In this we can see SMR’s methodical, body-centered approach to teaching mindfulness.  He lays out the steps meticulously, it’s almost like a mechanical process, while CTR’s descriptions seem to take poetic flight from depths of inspiration and practice accomplishment.

We’re still attached to klesha; we think that things can work out through klesha activity. It’s like knowing we should do something because it is good for us, but not doing it.  There’s no strength of mind there, so we’re seduced by stronger forces. (Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, 2000 Seminary Transcripts, Teachings from the Sutra Traditions – Book One)

The corrective I’m trying to point to is that the students of CTR hear his descriptions of the outcomes of practice and take them as gospel.  Meaning they may have overestimated the nature of their own practice realization.  SMR’s more physically grounded presentation, relying on the traditional model of the nine stages of shamatha, with its deliberate, methodical and almost mechanical approach, would counteract that effect. Further, maybe some of the animosity toward the Sakyong is because he pricked people’s pride and invited them down from a heaven realm.

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