The Essential Guide to Travel for Meditators

One day, over twenty years ago, I woke up in a hotel room in Mexico City. The room was unadorned and low-budget, a few blocks from Chapultepec Park. Dream memories gradually dissolved into the polyester sheets and morning sunlight entering the room and I realized each day is a complete lifetime.

I particularly feel this way when traveling, that each day in new, unique, never seen before.

I began my day in that Mexico City hotel room with meditation, just as I do most days, just as I do whenever I travel. Maybe I've learned a few things about how to integrate meditation practice into life with a suitcase. In any case, I'll explore and share a few thoughts on the basis of meditative discipline, or any discipline.

The traditional terms for the foundation of Buddhist practice, with includes both meditation and study, are (the Sanscrit terms) shila, samadhi and prajna, or discipline, absorption and intellect. Shila, as discipline, means something innate. Conventionally we view discipline as something external, an obligation that might feel onerous, even odious. But in this case, shila means drawing on something inside of us - and when we do so we discover joy, another meaning of shila. This relationship with discipline, or the process of becoming simple and focused, and joy is something anyone involved in the creative arts discovers, that through discipline we come to meet - rather than avoid - the blank page, the blank canvas, the open dance floor. That meeting brings joy.

Samadhi means, in the traditional translation of the term, absorption. Essentially samadhi means meditation. As my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, samadhi means "entering a particular world, which is a full world, a big world, a complete world." The natural relationship between discipline and meditation is to make a daily relationship with meditation, to sit for as long as one practially can. During a meditation retreat, shila might mean to sit for ten hours a day, whereas in a life of a fulltime job it might mean to sit twenty minutes in the morning (or evening). The key word, the magic word, when it comes to shila or discipline is priority.

To make something a priority means to actualize what we value the most, to walk the talk. When we do, someone or something will meet us there. Again, to cite the creative arts, if we make a regular date with our writing - i.e., if we show up every morning to write, if we make writing our priority - eventually creative inspiration will also show up. Traditionally this arrival is that of the muse, the animating spirit of creative life. Chögyam Trungpa called these muses the dralas. If we make a date in our mind (the muses, the dralas, the lineage can "read" our mind) then if we break that date, we disappoint the larger spere of our being, and so we suffer. If we do show up, and meditate for the time that is reasonable to our day, we always, always, always find it is worthwhile (though any rule is made to sometimes be broken; there are times when it is not indicated to practice).

When the brush meets the blank canvas, the result is a painting. When shila meets samadhi, the result is prajna or intellect. When we think of intellect we usually think of its contents, but intellect here simply mean clearheadedness. The meditation discipline of sitting practice brings a diminishment and release of discursive thought. Often when we sit we feel we are having more discursive thought, but this is only because we are keeping still and thus noticing them - this noticing is also prajna. When we finish sitting it is often then that the clearheadedness arrives, is noticed. Clearheadedness is the basis of all the other virtues of life; if we are not clear, how can we discern virtue?

Travel is an opportune time to be clearheaded. Since travel means venturing beyond our familiar home, not only do we need to have our wits about us but the unknown is very wakeful. So if we are already woken up through meditation, the wakefulness of the world penetrates us all the more. In essence, travel is not so much a destination as a state of mind. Our commute to work is as much travel as a vacation in Rome. As Allen Ginsberg put it in the poem, We Rise on Sunbeans and Fall in the Night:

Dawn's orb orange-raw shining over palisades
bare crowded branches bush up from marshes -
New Jersey with my father riding automobile
highway to Newark Airport - Empire State's
spire, horned buildingtops, Manhattan
rising as in W.C. Williams' eyes between wire trestles -
trucks sixwheeled steady rolling overpass
beside New York - I am here
tiny under sun rising in vast white sky,
staring thru skeleton new buildings,
with pen in hand awake...

For me, in the practice of being an awake traveler, it is good to put a few things in my suitcase that the ordinary traveler might not carry. The first is an inflatable zafu; it weighs next to nothing, looks like the real thing, and works better that rolling up the blanket of the bed or sitting on a couple of pillows (Google to find one). I also like to carry a small gong, maybe an optional item, but it makes a difference to ring it, to feel the bell's melody penetrate the room, to feel it invite the lineage and the dralas.

Finally, I alway carry a picture of my teacher, a small silk cloth and (usually) a candle. With these three objects I can make a shrine in my hotel or guest house room. This is the first thing I do as I unpack my suitcase, and it is part of taming the heretofore anonymous space, making it my own, suitable for both sleep and the practice of waking up from sleep, meditation.

The final accoutrement to carry is an alarm clock (my iPhone). To manifest my priority I like to get up early, with or before the sun. For me, it is better to loose a bit of sleep than to miss the opportune time of the day to meditate, which is early. Dawn is fresh is and so is mediation when done this time of day.

After I take breakfast, I come back to my room and write. Sometimes I'll write all morning and not begin the way of the wanderer until the afternoon. Then I take a long, long and somewhat aimless walk. I've been fortunate to be able to take many of these walks in Rome, Istanbul, Phnom Penh.

The meditative traveler is always on a pilgrimage, whether wandering on commute, as Allen Ginsberg did, or through northern Japan, as Basho famously did in his Journey to the Interior.

Each day really is a lifetime.


Finding a Teacher

In 1970 I was sixteen and reading Chögyam Trungpa's first book, Meditation in Action. My hair was long and I carried the book in my back pocket (or ones by Alan Watts or Herman Hesse). Part of me knew, and part of me had no idea that Chögyam Trungpa would become my teacher.

If Buddhism is a way to become truly human, then we encounter many teachers in our lifetime, beginning with our parents. We generally think of a spiritual teacher with a capital T, but how do we find one? The path seems to one of tendril, a Tibetan word meaning that all situations arise through the coming together of various forces. In Western terms the word synchronicity is similar, in which uncanny and seemingly impossible-to-foresee events conspire to lead us, in this case, to a teacher. This path is a narrative, a deeply personal story.

To participate in this story we need both openness and critical intelligence. Openness is a humility, a knowing that we don't know and a yearning for true knowledge, a recognition that wisdom passes to us through lineages. Sometimes a poem or novel might awaken this openness (thus Allen Ginsberg or Toni Morrison might be our lineage fore-bearer), sometimes a person. The first "spiritual" person I met was in college, a Hopi medicine man who was a guest lecturer in my class on Native American studies. For his age his hair was still black, cut near his neck line and held in place with a bandana. He stood bolt upright and carried a presence I can still remember.

Critical intelligence means a trust in ourselves, a tendency not to be duped, a recognition that the path of wisdom is fundamentally inside us, that the story is our own. As Chögyam Trungpa once said, "A teacher or fellow traveler or the scriptures might show us where we are on a map and where we might go from there, but we must make the journey ourselves."1 Similarly, Trungpa once said following the spiritual path is something we must do alone, and the role of the teacher is to tell us that.

In terms of Buddhism, our search for a teacher will likely if not inevitably be conducted within the, now myriad, meditation programs and centers found throughout the West and the world. The first person who correctly instructs us in meditation will be our teacher. So, inevitably, will many others. Perhaps we will never find a teacher with a capital T. My first teacher of meditation had only two years more experience than I did, but she instructed me well and I can still remember the moment. I left the room we talked in and sat for one hour with a small group of other students. To date, the longest hour of my life; how could my body hurt so much, be so restless? But also, the most vivid hour of my life.

Although Buddhism (especially Varjrayana Buddhism) places great emphasis on a teacher, the teacher we find may not always be living. This has been especially true in the wake of the passing of some of the great Tibetan gurus of the Twentieth Century: the Sixteen Gyalwa Karmapa, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche or Chögyam Trungpa. Through dreams, through atmospheric presence, or through knowing one of their students, many people have a genuine and steadfast connection to one of these teachers. I have met many such people. I personally feel Chögyam Trungpa's presence as strongly now as when he was alive.

Carl Jung, in his book Memories, Dreams and Reflections, tells an interesting story: Jung himself had an "invisible" teacher, Philamen - "At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru." This must have been an admissions that Jung was reluctant to make, that his guru was a spirit or drala!

Jung went on to discuss an encounter he had some years later with a highly educated Indian man, a friend of Gandhi's. Jung said the two of them discussed education, particularly the role of guru and chela (disciple) and at one point the Indian gentleman disclosed his own guru, "Oh yes, he was Shankaracharya."

"You don't mean the commentator on the Vedas who died centuries ago?" I (Jung) asked.
"Yes, I mean him," he said to my amazement.
"Then you are referring to a spirit?" I asked.
"Of couse it was his spirit," he agreed.
At that moment I thought of Philemon.
"There are ghostly gurus too," he added. "Most people have living gurus. But there are always some who have a spirit for teacher."

Finding a teacher is not something we can manufacture, but it is something we can set out to do, something we can, as mentioned, have a longing for. The best way to set out is to know that working on ourselves is the best way to find a teacher. It is like preparing the soil of a garden. If the soil is dug deeply and well fertilized with organic material and kept watered the seeds that someone plants in it will grow.

Meditation is available to all of us now. It can even be learned online. Meditation is preparing the garden. In the openness and alertness that emerges from our practice of meditation we are much more prone to recognizing the teacher. Without the ability to recognize, we might never notice the teacher, even if we bump into her.

In one of his talks, the late Zen teacher Kōbun Chino Otogawa Roshi drew attention to the fact of how we always think we "are bad," and the teacher is someone who tells is otherwise. But he added, "Don't misunderstand - this teacher is not always a person. It can embrace you like morning dew in a field, and you get a strange feeling, Oh, this is it, my teacher is this field."

Conversely, Otogawa was once asked, "When all the teachers are gone, who will be your teacher?"
A student replied: "Everything!"
Otogawa, paused, then said: "No, you."


1. The Myth of Freedom, by Chögyam Trungpa. Pg. 103




How to be a Good Student

How to be a good student is a matrix of many intersections, one of which includes the standard definition of the Buddhist "middle way": not too tight, not too loose. Buddhism is the art of living, both an art and a science. Being not too tight means, among other things, not becoming dogmatic and ultimately closed around Buddhism as a mere religion. Being not too loose means to maintain the disciplines one has been introduced to, the most important being meditation itself, what is generally called practice. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche often told his students, "If you want to meet me in your life, practice."

What does "good" mean? It doesn't mean becoming spiritually subservient, studiously avoiding being any kind of troublemaker or objectionist. Good means that one becomes suited to spiritual development, that one becomes a good vessel for one's own awakening and the reciprocal awaking of others. The essence of being good is to live by vow. There are many types of vows in the Buddhist tradition but the essence of a vow is a commitment to being awake rather than merely following habitual (samsaric) patterns.

In everyday terms, vow means to implement one's priority. Mother Tessa Bielecki, a Carmelite nun, put it this way:

You can start by prioritizing your activities, beginning with your spiritual practice. You could look at the day and determine what is the most optimal way to focus on your prayer or meditation, and then build the rest of the day around that. For most people, this usually means getting up earlier or going to bed later. My personal experience, and the experience of hundreds of other people I have spoken with, is that it is better in the long run to get up an hour earlier to do one’s practice than to sleep in.

Structuring one's day to live by vow or priority is a choice and, like all choices, exists in a crossroads. One direction is habitual pattern, what is called the nidana chain (in Tibetan, tendril). Habitual patterns are the usual course of things, all the conventional distractions - and these distractions are built around fundamental core beliefs of various poverty mentalities, all a feeling that we are not good enough. Thus we might just lie in bed long after our alarm rings because we don't fully want to feel a particular poverty mentality or depression, much less pass through it.

The direction that differs from tendril or habitual patterns is tashi tendril or auspicious coincidence. Following tashi tendril means to experience a type of mastery in our life, to follow the coincidences that present themselves in our ordinary day. Tashi tendril means that there is a kind of fundamental openness and even perfection that is the background for our usual state - being caught in the distractions of discursive thought.

Practicing meditation sets the ground for awareness of tashi tendril by bringing us into the openness and perfection of the moment. In many ways, sitting meditation is a rigorous act, even a martial art, in that we learn to "hold our seat." Seat is our body, where we are at any given time. Holding our seat means our mind and sense perceptions are attuned to what is going on around us. In this attundment, whatever shows up as phenomena - the positive or the difficult - we are able to hold our seat and ride the phenomena. As Chögyam Trungpa put it, "The warrior's path is that you ride phenomena - phenomena are not allowed to ride you."

Riding phenomena is demanding, a lifetime commitment. But riding phenomena is also personal experience, which brings us to another aspect of being a good student: trusting ourselves. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the Buddhist tradition, a feeling that we cannot match the exertion and commitment of the masters of the past. At the end of a weekend meditation program, Chögyam once gave this advice to the students in the room:

If you have any doubt about whether you are doing the meditation practice right of wrong, it doesn't matter all that much. The main point is to have honesty within yourself. Just do what you think is best. That is called self-truth. If truth is understood by oneself, then you cannot be persecuted at all, karmically or any other way. You're doing your best, so what can go wrong. Cheer up and have a good time.




How to Create a Shrine

Assembling a shrine is a highly creative act. It is one that not only supports one's Buddhist practice (or any practice) but provides a basis for positively altering one's entire way of life. Creating a shrine is to manifest one's intention and to remind oneself of one's highest priorities. Creating a shine is also a physical act - it might require lumber, glass, bowls for incense and water offerings. And sometimes a curious cat might temporarily become part of one's shrine.

As Buddhism has come to the West, custom has favored the word "shrine" over "altar" for these places of intention. Though both are appropriate and interesting words, usage has probably avoided the word altar because of its strong associations with Christianity - though the root of altar is the Latin word altus, meaning "high." This might be the first guideline for creating a shine (or altar): elevation. Common sense inclines us create a shine on a table, shelf (or specially constructed box) so that is is off the ground and prominent in ones room or environment (an automobile dashboard is also a good place for a shrine).

Our word "shrine" comes from the Latin scrinium meaning "chest for books" - thus a shrine is a place for the sacred word (Hebrew, Sanskrit, Pali). Traditionally, a Buddhist shrine might contain a dharma book, perhaps wrapped in cloth. What book should one choose? This question strikes at the heart of creating a shrine at all. The choice of a book - or any other object - should be a genuine act, which means an act of the heart, an act of affection, and not one of obligation - and hence guilt.

To create a guilt-free shine one could assemble signifiers of one's heart connection to Buddhism, and to the phenominal world at large. Typically this would include a photograph of one's teacher(s), a candle (or two), a dharma book, perhaps bowls of offering water and a statue of the Buddha. On the other hand, one's shrine could be ultra simple: merely a candle, merely a photograph. Interestingly, in Islam, the "shine" or altar of a mosque, called the mirab, is simply an indentation in the wall, in other words, an activated space. To create a Buddhist shine, in its most universal essence, is to create a space one will practice in front of. In a sense, where ever one chooses to meditate means to have already created a shrine.

This brings us to another meaning of a shine: a reminder. Everything on one's shrine could be a consciously chosen reminder; a reminder of one's faith, one's affection, one's love. On some level, looking at one's shrine is looking at oneself: from candles to a statue or thangka, the ritual objects express one's own Buddha nature. As one travels the Buddhist path, invariably one's shine might develop and conform to certain practices one's teacher has empowered one in, such as ngondro or the practice of Vajrayogini - in the latter case, the shine includes nearly a dozen offerings and representations of the enlightened deity of Vajrayogini.

We've talked about the shine as being guilt-free, but this does not mean a shine remains innocuous, like a piece of furniture. A shrine becomes alive for many reason, and as we look upon it, it looks back at us. Since a Buddhist shrine personifies our relationship to practice, it haunts us in the same way our teacher and own awareness does, to be awake. Our resistance becomes a guest the shrine seeks to drive out, so that we surrender to the open moment.

Sometimes a shrine becomes strangely outdated, perhaps devoid of life, like a musty museum. In any case, over time, I can't imagine any practitioner's shrine remaining the same - I certainly don't know of anyone's who has. Some go from the elaborated and doctrinaire back to something utterly simple, like a photograph and flower arrangement. Shrines need housekeeping and occasional remodeling. Shrines reflect our changing journey on the path.

Another purpose of the shrine is as place of offering. This brings in the animistic or shamanic dimension (in all countries, Buddhism has absorbed and commingled with the indigenous), the dimension of ancestors, spirits and the invisible world (which is also the dimension on Buddhist lineage, of Dogen, Milarepa and Nagarjuna). It is innately human to offer to what we cannot see, to sublimate ourselves into gratitude, especially as a rite in the beginning of the day.

The shamanic may be the most important dimension of invoking one's shrine, so to speak. I say "invoking" because of the relationship of sincerity to one's shrine. The shrine is merely an orientation point, if it doesn't evoke a shift in our attitude - and an awareness of gratitude - it means next to nothing. It is necessary to feel - and invoke - some relationship with the "invisible world."

I once interviewed the late and highly venerated master Traleg Rinpoche and asked the following question, Rinpoche's answer is worth some study and related to this dimension of one's shrine, or relationship to the invisible:

Bill Scheffel: f I could ask you this question: two major pitfalls of the student or practitioner are eternalism and nihilism. I think there is, if not a consensus, a widely held view that in the west there is a lot of experience of nihilism. There is a kind of diminished sense of this kind of co-participatory relationship with the world at large and the (invisible world).
Traleg Rinpoche: I think so. I agree with you there completely and wholeheartedly. And it is a big problem and I think what has happened there is that people have embraced the western secular view of the world so totally that they have incorporated only certain aspects of Buddhism into their lives, and the other aspects of Buddhism that do not fit with that world view they have sort of ignored that completely, at their own peril. People can relate to Buddhist philosophy of shamatha and vipashyana and emptiness and even bodhichitta, I suppose, but anything to do with the other side of Buddhism - deities, and trying to make some connection with invisible beings - If we don't see them then they don't exist and if we live in the modern world they are not real.

When I asked Traleg Rinpoche about his own practice he went on to tell me that he prayed frequently and made food and other offerings to the invisible dimension. He especially felt the need for this when he arrived at a new location, to make a relationship with the "local deities."

Another way the invisible is invoked is through fire. Burning incense seems particularly Buddhist, but Tibetan Buddhism has many "fire rituals," including lhasang, a practice of burning juniper smoke and making offerings to the dralas and other invisible beings. The lhasang is ancient, indigenous and predates the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet by probably milleniums.

One can easily perform one's own lhasang each morning by simply burning juniper or sage (the native American traditions of smudging are akin to lhasang). The smoke that rises quite literally dissolves into the air and space element, thus linking the visible and invisible. Conversely, the strength of the invisible world descends the smoke into one's own being.

Now we can begin to see that a shrine, perhaps above all, is a place where we make a ritual and literal connection to the "elemental" or fundamental level of life. The shrine typically contains water offerings in the form of one or more bowls filled with water; the candles, incense and/or lhasang express fire and air; the table, shelf or dresser the shrine objects sit on expresses earth. To create a shrine is to consciously restore and empower one's connection with the phenomenal world. What could be more creative than that?







How to Settle a Crazy Mind (Or What to do in the First Five Minutes of Meditation)

When we first sit down to meditate we cross a boundary not unlike the one from dreams to waking in the night. To meditate is to experience a categorical shift in our being, it is to come infinitely closer to being itself. Yet in the first five minutes of meditating it seldom feels like this. Instead it typically feels like we've gone from being in mild traffic to driving a highway in Mumbai. If thoughts were cars we're suddenly experiencing a million of them.

Why is this?

It is traditionally said that when we begin to practice we experience our thoughts as if we were standing behind a raging waterfall (a version of Mumbai traffic). This is not because we are thinking more, we are simply experiencing the amount of thought that is normally occurring in our mind - but it takes the contrast of sitting still and doing nothing to recognize this.

So this first thing to do is not to fight against our thoughts, much less judge ourselves for having them.

It is ironic how long it takes to not judge ourselves for having thoughts. As more than one teacher has pointed out, having thoughts means that we are alive! There is nothing wrong with thinking.

Yet to meditate is to live within paradox. On the one hand, it is crucial to accept our thoughts, on the other hand, only as thoughts diminish does clear seeing begin to dawn. Truly, we must embrace this paradox. Doing so means to both accept and exert. Acceptance is the expression of self love, exertion is the expression of commitment through practicing mindfulness.

Back to those first five minutes. One of the first things we can become aware of is the difference between body and what Chogyam Trungpa called "body-body." Body, as we normally experience it, is a collection of concepts, opinions, ideas, attitudes. In other words, we're just up in our head. We experience this intently in those first five minutes. Gradually, breath by breath, minute by minute we begin to experience body-body. Gradually we make contact with our actual body: a pain in our sacrum, an anxiety in our belly, a fly on our nose. Recognizing the pain, the anxiety, the fly is to experience clear seeing!

If we are speedy, tired or both, we might journey through those first five minutes lying on our back. Truly! An actual nap might be just what we need. Then meditate. On the other hand, we could meditate for five minutes (or longer) in the deeply nourishing somatic posture of lying down (it helps to have the knees up, held together with a yoga strap or scarf). Close the eyes, and with each breath let the body relax, let the nervous system discharge, let one's breath enter the lower belly.

In the first five minutes of meditation we experience, at least in glimpses, all the potentials of meditation, all of the journey that we can or will eventually take. Sometimes those "first five minutes" are all the minutes we have. Five minutes of meditation can be in itself a complete, potent and beautiful session. And remember, no matter how long one has been practicing, those first five minutes are usually crazy.


What is Lineage and How Do We Connect to It?

Buddhism takes pride in having a 2,500 year unbroken lineage stretching back to Gautama Buddha. But the passed-on knowledge of how to bake bread or construct a building like the Pantheon is also lineage. Each of us lives at the intersection of countless lineages and without their skills and knowledge we'd be, culturally speaking, butt naked, thirsty and starving.

It is easy enough to fathom the lineages of baking or carpentry, but what is a spiritual lineage, something that seems so intangible? Buddhism as spiritual lineage is the transmission, from teacher to student, of our original or primordial mind. Since it is innate and not external to ourselves, our original mind cannot really be "transmitted" but only pointed to. When we recognize our original mind we become, in that moment, part of the lineage because we are sharing in the same quality of mind as the masters who preceded us. As Chogyam Trungpa once wrote, "Father and child are one in the realm of thought" - though by "thought" what he meant was before-thought.

In order to discover lineage, Chogyam Trungpa wrote,

You have to look back, back to where you came from, back to the original state. In this case, looking back is not looking back in time, going back several thousand years. It is looking back into your own mind, to before history began, before thinking began, before thought ever occurred. When you are in contact with this original ground, then you are never confused buy the illusions of the past and future. You are able to rest continuously in nowness.

Meditation is the process in which we glimpse the moment before thought, moments of pure awareness or original mind. It is in these moment of "nowness" that we join with the lineage. Similarly, seeing nature or moving works of art also brings about moments of nowness. When our mind is stopped by seeing a Caravaggio or Cezanne we become part of the lineage of these painters. When we glimpse pure awareness we become part of the lineages of Dogen, Milarapa and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Just as appreciation of a painting masterpiece brings love for the painter who created it, glimpses of the true nature of our mind brings love or devotion for the lineage. These glimpses spark a passionate relationship of longing for our teacher and the lineage of teachers who preceded us. This is one of the ways in which meditation is far more than mindfulness alone. Without longing and devotion we cannot fathom what lineage is, much less become a bonafide part of it.

Since lineage is experienced on this inner level, its development is both linear and multidimensional. History and organization tell us something about lineage, especially in the cases when it was formally passed from one master to the next, but lineage is also an "infection" that is passed in ways that history and organizations can never fully record. Great masters touch countless people simply through their presence and we can never know how these moments of transmission become realized in the lives of their recipients.



















Back to the top.


Stray Dog Press