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3. Just Sit…Then Sit More

Within two years of his revelatory retreat in Bhutan, Trungpa Rinpoche found himself in America. A farmhouse, barn, and surrounding acreage in northern Vermont that was soon dotted with retreat cabins became the first home for his teaching and community. He had taken off his robes, married, and settled in among a growing body of students inspired by his honest assessment of the way things were: both the wretchedness and the glory. One seminar after another took place in a tent set up on the front lawn. It was a festival atmosphere befitting the hippie era.

In addition to the dangers of spiritual materialism, one theme predominated: the centrality of “the sitting practice of meditation.” He was uncompromising. The only way to realize the tantric possibilities described in the Sadhana of Mahamudra— wherein “pain and pleasure alike become ornaments which it is pleasant to wear”—is to sit and to sit and to sit more. When I attended my first seminar as an eager teenage seeker, after a few days we decamped to the town hall/gymnasium for an entire day of sitting meditation. I couldn’t believe it. Soooo boring and claustrophobic. And yet somewhere in there, a little space, a little glory peeked in. The path began.

This foundation undergirds Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings. If you sit with yourself, with no project other than to follow a simple technique of paying attention, you will gradually familiarize yourself with the texture of mind. Over time, the technique falls away and you’re left with mindfulness of the details of life and awareness of the surrounding space. It’s nothing other than what the Buddha himself taught, but Trungpa Rinpoche presented the Buddha’s message in a new vernacular he was discovering.

As he crisscrossed the country, setting himself up in Boulder, Colorado, and teaching in city upon city, he changed the terms on which dharma had been approached. In an earlier period, Buddhism had been taught as philosophy or religion. He expressed it in terms of its insights about the human mind, borrowing terms from Western psychology and developing fresh ways of translating the Buddhist lexicon. He spoke of ego and egolessness (which the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with coining), neurosis and sanity, conflicting emotions, conditioning, habitual patterns, projection, the phenomenal world, and so on. His teachings intricately described processes of mind more than doctrines. The message was that by becoming familiar with mind in an intimate way, seeing it in the relaxed space of sitting meditation, we meet ourselves fully for the first time.

Rigorous Buddhist practice, as he described it, is scientific and exploratory. We learn what is true— that clinging to an ego is the cause of all our problems— through our own efforts, not because we’ve been told what is true. Because it’s our own discovery, it has more power. He trusted that any human being, regardless of cultural background, can engage in sitting practice fully and attain what the Buddha attained. He was the best-known and most prolific of a body of teachers—such as Ajahn Chah, Mahasi Sayadaw, Suzuki Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, Lama Yeshe, Kalu Rinpoche—who began teaching Westerners in the belief they were equipped to take on the rigors of practice, not just sit on the sidelines with an intellectual appreciation of what the real practitioners were doing. Buddhism in the West was off and sitting.


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