Editor’s Note: To look at the breadth of what we might have read to support our meditation practice, we asked staff members to talk about books that inspired them at the beginning of their sitting meditation career, as well as books that freshly inspire them today. These selections reflect our Buddhist heritage, but can be enjoyed by anyone exploring the practice of meditation.
While the support provided to the path of meditation the books here is timeless, we have grouped the responses under the general headings of “Then” and “Now”. We asked Michael G. to launch this effort.
Then: Meditation in Action
“And here you can see quite clearly that meditation is not trying to escape from life, it is not trying to reach a utopian state of mind, nor is it a question of mental gymnastics. Meditation is just trying to see what is, and there is nothing mysterious about it.”
—Chögyam Trungpa, Meditation in Action
A gift from a family friend, my Dad got this book when I was a sophomore in High School. I don’t remember if he recommended it or I just borrowed it from his desk. I was getting high and reading Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now.” Highs turned into lows and I started to wonder how spirituality and I would get along, exactly. In the book, Chögyam Trungpa’s voice is somehow both authoritative and soft. The evocative descriptions of India at the time of the Buddha transported me. I didn’t yet have a meditation practice, but Trungpa’s descriptions of meditation, as a discipline that happened in spite of ambitions for “higher states,” spoke to my own struggles and disappointments at the time and forever marked my understanding of what it might mean to be “spiritual”.
Dad was a member of an Ashram that practiced Kundalini. Maybe because it was all about unblocking energy and I was a mass of energy, or because my Dad was into it and that made it suspect — whatever the reason, I wasn’t attracted. Then (because he owned a house) my Dad hosted Sherab Chödzen, then Michael Kohn, one of Chögyam Trungpa‘s senior students, on a teaching tour.
As he arrived for his visit, I saw Sherab get out of Dad’s car in our driveway. From 50 feet away I had to know who he was and what he was about. On the spot, I decided to take the weekend he offered and began a practice of sitting meditation for the first time. During the weekend, we met in a meditation interview. He was warm and open and seemed to find things amusing. At the same time, he treated me like a real person. I never felt that he was talking down to me, a lowly teenager.
All in all I would say he was very kind to me. Really, it was a revelation — an introduction to the notion of “teacher” as a real live person. Things didn’t have to remain a mystery. There were people out there who could help you deal. Who actually knew something. Meditation in Action was inspiring, but here was a living example of what meditation means – that made it real. Many years later, I remain grateful for his encouragement.
At the weekend there was emphasis on a daily meditation practice, which I began to try to keep up after that weekend (a happy struggle that continues today). At the time I had no clue about a zafu and zabuton or really much insight into the importance of posture in meditation. I just sat on the floor of my room, experimenting with throw cushions. It was pretty precarious.
Later, I discovered Chögyam Trungpa at Naropa University‘s summer session. (Again tagging along with my Dad). From reading Meditation in Action it was clear that Chögyam Trungpa had real insights into the path of meditation. Just what he had to offer would manifest in the years following the publication of this slight book. It is a complete portrait of the path, with chapters on the Buddha, Meditation, Transmission and the transcendent actions of the Bodhisattva.
Amazingly, in the chapter on Wisdom or Prajna, there is a thorough discussion of the need to become a “warrior” who “has great confidence” – themes that would become central in the teachings of Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, many years later.
“Therefore, this reasoning brings knowledge to those who do not understand and refreshes the memory of those who have done so. This argument has the power to dispel all misconceptions contrary to the fact that things have no inherent existence.” — Jamgön Mipham, in his commentary
Mipham’s commentary on Shantarakshita’s (the 8th century Indian adept) synthesis of the two main Buddhist schools of Madyamaka and Yogacara is definitely not for everyone. I’m reading this for the Mipham Academy course taught by Khenpo Gawang at Karmê Chöling. When we study in this class, we sit on our meditation cushions with a puja or study table in front. In this way, there is a kind of mixing of study and meditation.
In no way a scholar (I’m a CPA, so do the math); the only reason I can read this book is because I have a community of people that I get to share it with. Many times, I don’t follow the reasonings. But the 19th century Tibetan Master Jamgön Mipham has a completely cheerful, engaging and distinctive voice that captivates, looking with incisive humor at the way we humans’ misconceive the act of perception.
For instance — how do we know the details of things? If a butterfly lands on a flower in front of us, do we perceive the wings, colors, body, movement and flower “all at once” or “successively?” Suffice to say that investigation into this question by the meditative mind yields remarkable insights. Mipham’s encouragement to look closely at the nature of experience keeps it real for me.
The language of the Padmakara translation often borders on easy to follow. Some prefer the translation by Thomas H. Doctor, which includes the original Tibetan text on facing pages.