I graduated from Columbia College (English major) in 1968, and had been working professionally as a musician for several years. In the fall of 1970, I decided that I needed further training in music and so I got in my car and drove up to Boston for my first semester at Berklee College of Music.
I had been interested in Buddhism, yoga, consciousness expansion, you name it for several years, so it was a natural for me to seek out a yoga studio in Boston. I found the East-West Center under the direction of Patricia Harvey, who was a wonderful teacher and friend at the time. Coincidentally, she was one of the people who helped bring Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to the United States, and so not long after he arrived here, he came to her studio to lead a workshop -- Work, Sex and Money. (These workshops are just now available in a new book called Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness.)
I had heard he was a high lama from Tibet and nothing could have been cooler at that particular time, so I signed up for the workshop. I was surprised to see him enter in a western business suit (not robes), and that first Friday night he gave a rather straightforward and somewhat "flat" talk. In no way shape or form was it spiritually "titillating," or even non-spiritually titillating (even though the title might have left the door open for some sizzle). As I remember that talk, it was reasonable but dry and maybe even a little bit boring.
As I walked home that evening, I thought to myself, "Hmm... I really am wound up on all this stuff and that guy just let the air out of my tires." I remember laughing at myself a bit as I had my first (but not last) experience of what Rinpoche would famously later call "cutting through spiritual materialism."
When I went back the next day, I began to really appreciate the quality of his presence, his directness, the subtlety of his mind and the depth of his training.
He gave each person one to one meditation instruction in a room upstairs from the yoga studio. I remember asking him for a mantra, saying that I was a musician, and that I thought I could relate to sound easily. He said that mantras are good but they are like medicine and you can use them but then you have to wean yourself off them, so maybe it was better just to relate directly with the mind.
He taught a very open style of meditation that is still presented In Level 1 of the program he created called Shambhala Training, which I later realized was a mixture of shamatha (mindfulness with effort) and dzogchen (a more open style of awareness practice). Many of his early workshops were, in a Buddhist sense, very advanced in terms of how he presented material to us. I think later on he cut back and taught the fundamentals of Buddhism in a 3 month seminary we all had to attend before being introduced to the tantric (more advanced) teachings.
For me to be able to present a workshop now based on these earliest teachings is a big thrill. (Ok, I'll try to be a little boring too.) This material at the time was so juicy, and it still is. It's about making everyday life the root of your dharma practice, not just some incidental events that happen while you're trying to get enlightened.
The Shambhala Centers are still here 41 years later, still thriving, and we're still here (most of us) relating to work, sex (occasionally) and money, trying to wrap our dharma framework around these things. But what Rinpoche was saying at the time and what we all still need to hear is that how we handle our lives is our dharma.
This quote from Rinpoche sums it up completely and I personally live by it:
There are many people who are more learned than I and more elevated in their wisdom. However, I have never made a separation between the spiritual and the worldly. If you understand the ultimate aspect of the dharma, this is the ultimate aspect of the world. And if you should cultivate the ultimate aspect of the world, this should be in harmony with the dharma.
(From Chogyam Trungpa's unpublished diary, 1966.)
David Nichtern is a four-time Emmy winner, two-time Grammy nominee -- a guitarist, composer and producer. He is known, among other things, as the composer of the classic song "Midnight at the Oasis." David is also a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and director of Buddhist practice and study at OM yoga and has written a popular dharma column for the Huffington Post for the last two years or so.
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