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  • Dharma Talk with Kanho Chris Burkhart : Trungpa's Path of Liberation and Right Mindfulness

Dharma Talk with Kanho Chris Burkhart : Trungpa's Path of Liberation and Right Mindfulness

  • Thursday, September 14, 2023
  • 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
  • Zoom Zendo

Kanho Chris explores right mindfulness from a few perspectives, touching on the classical definition of mindfulness and the four foundations, and how the innovative, but ethically flawed, Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa explored mindfulness practice.

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Talk Notes

Dear friends,

I hope that you are well on this fine end of summer evening. Here, in the Pacific Northwest, it is a time when life, nature, celebrations all explode with vitality and energy. I know that in my corner of the woods, swans put on an appearance in winter and are pretty much gone in summer.

Tonight I will bring up two matters. One is another look at right mindfulness. The second is a brief summary of the eight-fold noble path as described by Chogyam Rinpoche. But it might be helpful to set an intention, aspiration, a question. And who asks better questions than Mary Oliver?

Mary Oliver The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

I chose Mary Oliver's poem “The Swan” for the last three lines:

And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

I feel they are so fitting our continued study of the four noble truth and the noble eight-fold path. And why? Are you feeling it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? And are you seeing the beauty we create when we finally figure it out, even if it is just a little bit? And, most importantly, have you decided to change your life?

Tonight's dharma talk continues our exploration of the noble eight-fold path and I noticed that nobody, at least so far, has brought up right mindfulness. In today's language you may find more people who are familiar with Jon Kabat-Zinn's definition than the Buddha's: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” says Kabat-Zinn. “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.” Some even believe that Kabat-Zinn invented it.

Not so fast though. Mindfulness has always been an integral part of Buddhist practice which predates the current Mindfulness movement by quite a bit. the four kinds of mindfulness, also called satipaṭṭhānas are found throughout the Pāli canon. First we should know what the 4 mindfulnesses are. There is mindfulness of the body, of feelings, mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of phenomena. If we tried to go into detail, we could spend much time investigating the sattipathanas.

The Buddha said this about mindfulness in the longer discourses, the Digha Nikaya:

And which is the faculty of sati? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones has sati, is endowed with excellent proficiency in sati, remembering & recollecting what was done and said a long time ago. He remains focused on the body in & of itself—ardent, alert, & having sati—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves—ardent, alert, & having sati—subduing greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called the faculty of sati.”

Again, there are 4 foundations of mindfulness, described as mindfulness of body, feeling, mind, and phenomena or dhamma. The Buddha puts any idea that the eight-fold noble path or any element of it might have permanence to rest. Amonk approaches the Buddha. He asks:

“‘The world, the world [loka],’ it is said. In what respect does the word ‘world’ apply? “Insofar as it disintegrates [lujjati], monk, it’s called the ‘world.’ Now what disintegrates? The eye disintegrates. Forms disintegrate. Consciousness at the eye disintegrates. Contact at the eye disintegrates. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too disintegrates. “The ear disintegrates. Sounds disintegrate.… “The nose disintegrates. Aromas disintegrate.… “The tongue disintegrates. Tastes disintegrate.… “The body disintegrates. Tactile sensations disintegrate.… “The intellect disintegrates. Ideas disintegrate. Consciousness at the intellect disintegrates. Contact at the intellect disintegrates. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect—experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too disintegrates. “Insofar as it disintegrates, it’s called the ‘world.’” — SN35:82

For fellow lovers of the Pali Canon, you can dive deeper

in the Satipaṭṭhāna-samyutta (Sutta Nipata collection, Chapter 47)

Other sutras in SN also dealing with satipaṭṭhāna extensively, such as the Anuruddha-saṁyutta.[21]

this one is important - Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Mahjjima Nikaya 10),

Last not least, the longer discourses, Digha Nikaya 22 which is mostly the same with the addition of the four noble truths

When we consider all the elements of the Mindfulness sutra, we can see that right mindfulness almost has a supervisory role. It keeps our practice on the right track:

In right view, mindfulness recognizes the right path from the wrong path;

it also remembers to stay alert and focused on the task at hand;

it motivates right effort by remembering why the right path is worth following, and it notices when we wander into the thickets

It keeps us steady with right effort of what to do.

Right mindfulness points at right effort so our practice stays on track. In turn, right effort means that we practice right mindfulness. This mutual arising of effort, support, and mindfulness, creates a stronger whole, all parts interwoven.

If you would like to immerse yourself in the Buddhist study of mindfulness, Analayo Bhikkhu wrote several outstanding commentaries, Joseph Goldstein has a wonderful series of recorded talks you can find as audiobooks and he wrote a book titled Mindfulness.

Now, let us switch tracks and look at One of my favorite books about the four noble truths, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's book “The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation.” When I started to practice, I thought it was the best book on the four noble truths. Preemptively, I want to mention that I am aware of the Trungpa's history. I also know several people who practiced with him and told me of his great authenticity. I will leave it up to you, how you consider his wild life, his crazy wisdom teachings. Trungpa was a man of who contained multitudes and emptiness, supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries, scholar, teacher, poet, artist, and originator of a radical re-presentation of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. Also, some of his ways of teaching, his heavy drinking, sexual relations with some of his students, the physical assault of a student and his wife, caused great controversies.

So, I am not asking that you are blind to the misconduct; however, we may be open to great compassion. Tonight I will lean a bit into two brief chapters titled “the sequence of the path” and “the four qualities of the path.”

Let us set the stage with the sequence of the path, maybe pre-requisites would have been another way of putting it. And let us not forget bodhichitta, our desire to awaken, the spontaneous wish and compassionate mind to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings as our overall motivation. Let's say that we have learned about the four noble truths and we truly accept four noble truths for ourselves. During our studies and our practice, we will meet challenges. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche lists these as:

  1. Overcoming the notion of eternity through the wisdom of impermanence is the non-theistic path of the buddhadharma.

  2. Overcoming the search for pleasure and the avoidance of discomfort. A little voice tries to tell me to search pleasure and distraction – they are so much nicer than a deep dive into my real problems. And it is important for me to remember that all distractions are impermanent.

  3. Realizing the possibility of emptiness. Both eternalism, having some kind of eternal life as a spirit or a soul, and nihilism, that nothing really matters because we appreciate everything as a form of emptiness are ways if reinforcing one's ego. Mindfulness, meditative awareness, and the experience of the gap are direct personal experiences forging the path of our practice, keeping us free of the extremes of nihilism and eternalim.

  4. Encountering Egolessness (read last paragraph on page 92, first on page 93)

The next subject is the four qualities of the path, which are path, insight, practice, and fruition.

  1. The first quality of path is Path: It is interesting that Trungpa lists path as the first quality of the path. This is the path of insight, realizing the real meaning of the dharma, the practice of suchness. The path is rediscovering your own buddha nature, rediscovering the buddha nature of all you encounter. Suchness is dropping your veils, seeing into reality itself.

  2. The second quality of the path is insight. We gain this insight through our daily sitting practice and through the experience of our living. Through meditation we find clarity and the skill and ability to fully relate to happenings without filters, without falling into the pit dug by our conditioning. This is the appropriate response of Zen practice. Our habit energy is clearly visible at this point, giving us the opportunity to clarify our mind and remove hindrances or obstacles.

  3. The third quality of the path is practice, or as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche puts it: associating with basic sanity. Our meditation practice is a different appproach to life and experiences. No judgment, no gaining idea, a slow peeling away of layers that accumulated during a life. Even if for a moment we feel that we are controlling our life, reality will roll around sooner or later and remind us “not so quick” that it is not so. There is always a reminder, that this illusion of control is just that, an illusion. In meditatiom we can open the hand of thought, of the desire to control and we can just be.

  4. The fourth quality of the path as outlined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is fruition. If we were followers of a Theravadan tradition, the ultimate fruition would is permanent Nirvana.

I, however, would say this: For us, it might mean that we have found our bodhisattva path. And what does that look like? We will continue to make mistakes. Nev ertheless, we will find our way back and continue to crawl, climb, and stumble along. The path itself becomes a treasure. Our path points to the bodhisattva ideal. These are our beloved, impossible bodhisattva vows:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them

Buddha's way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

For us, as bodhisattvas in the making, the fruition may be to achieve enlightenment and to fulfill the vow to become a buddha. However, don't forget, the bodhisattva foregoes entrance into nirvana in order to remain in the world as long as there are creatures to be saved from suffering.

I hope that pulling back and seeing the path from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's perspective has been useful. If it has not, please forget every single word I said and carry on with your practice. Or just enjoy Mary Oliver's poem The journey.

Mary Oliver The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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