Sadhana: Meditation as text

Though it’s now 2013, I’m including the text written below from 2010 to help illuminate…hopefully…how texts can work as…or in coordination…with meditation.


Sadhana Practice

Tomorrow night, Thursday, October 6, 2010, there will be a presentation of “something about” a seminal text in the youngish presentation of Kagyu/Nyingma/Shambhala Buddhism in America, as originally brought here from his native Tibet, by Chogyam Trungpa.

Why is this significant?

When I recently offered a course on the relationship between Judaism & Buddhism, in planning for the course, I thought four things may be helpful (among different other elements of the class).

1)      I thought it could be good to present how meditation was engaged in the Shambhala Center I had trained in.

2)      I thought a field trip as a part of the class to represent that exposure could be good.

3)      I thought that if class participants would see anything…how good would it be to present to Jews (or those who have a concept of what meditation is) the way in which Buddhists frequently enough engage in a liturgy….much like traditional Jewish practice, as a “practice,” not unlike the way Jews normatively engage in work with a liturgy during services.

4)      I saw that tuning into one of the “regular” times that the Sadhana of Mahamudra was practiced at the Shambhala Center could be an ideal time and situation to have this field trip for our class come together…and we did do this.

As it’s further developed, Mark Nowakowski will present more about this text at the Shambhala Center, having come to our local center from the international centre of Shambhala and so the occasion did re-present itself as being notable again…and it is what motivates this text you are reading

But, returning to why this “other” text…the Sadhana of Mahamudra is significant…let’s work further backwards at describing the value and potential meaning.

I had cause to share with Marc Nemiroff recently, our Shirat HaNefesh member who has been doing some very creative work in the area of contemplation and guided visualization in our community….that the challenge in discussing this overall idea with our community will be to “meet our community” where it exists, in terms of their background.  That is to say…Marc himself is fairly tuned into the nuances of the Jewish liturgy, and it is on the basis of this more “sophisticated” understanding that he has constructed his visualization exercises.  So, when recently asking Marc if he would help to lead us in teaching us something about the basis of his constructions, I understood that his task may be a challenged one.  Whereas his constructions are based on a good bedrock of knowledge of the source text, since those he will present to may not have this same background, he may be challenged to “work his magic” in the most effective way.

But, the text that is the Sadhana of Mahamudra exists at the same sort of matrix of challenges.  The students who are expected to study and practice this text will not have been exposed to the tradition of visualization that is the more traditional training that Buddhist practitioners do more typically become exposed to.  It is instead the expectation that this Sadhana of Mahamudra would be an “entrance-way” text for “nominally-trained” practitioners, who would still be expected to come away with a meaningful experience in the practice of this liturgy.

Coming around again…why is this Sadhana of Mahamudra significant?

And why might I suggest that this text could be pedagogically useful to Jews?

Although students who practice this “sadhana” are not generally taught to “visualize” particularly when engaging the text, frequently, the text is read in such a way that a natural “sense” and feeling are engendered by the words of the text, without further explicit efforts to evoke any particular ideas.  And so, without any special instruction, the task of the text works to accomplish the intended action for the practitioner.

Now, consider the intent of the Jewish liturgy…. in contrast.

The intent of words, any which way, is for them to be read and understood.

This, I believe.

Even the idea of “engendering visualization” may be more to say than is necessary, actually.

But, the fact is that when a writer writes…he or she will have an idea in their mind, and it is their purpose to transmit this idea to the reader.   For whatever that text is.

Perhaps too easily, reading would instead be taken on as a task to be accomplished, perhaps as a performance art, perhaps as a “text to get through.”

So, to encourage the reader to specifically “visualize” the image or set of images brought forward in the text may be only a pedagogical strategy at the outset….intended to direct the reader BACK to the words that are engaged in the text.  I would subscribe to this theory, generally. Without respect to the theory, the strategy of “visualization” is one that has been widely adopted in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, and their practitioners in that tradition.

It may be less than reasonable to stipulate that the purpose of the text in both the Jewish tradition, and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition…is to move the practitioner forward, from beginning to end, through a series of mind states….but I think this is something like the case.

Now…let’s review the two strategies, such that they can be construed…in these two traditions.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the student is encouraged to a) read the words, and b) understand them by a process of visualization

In Judaism, the words are frequently transformed into Hebrew, so that most opportunities to understand them will be filtered by the need to ignore the Hebrew being read simultaneously so that you can attend to the English which is written.

Admittedly, the above “compare and contrast” is an oversimplification, and an ignoring of the greater subtleties inherent of the actual implementation of “practitioner guidelines” in each tradition.

For example, for some Americans trying to negotiate eastern meditative traditions, they well may experience the same sort of “obstacle course” that I describe that Jews conventionally are presented with.  That is, they are given texts in a language unknown to them, and ask them to work with their “sounds,” believing in an inherent “spiritual” basis for the source language.

Also, note that in our Shirat HaNefesh, more than for your “average bear” in Jewish practice, there is a direction to the meaning of the text, and also, there is the adoption of a prayer book that helps the reader to understand the English while even Hebrew is read

My own bias in favor of what has been the presentation of liturgies in what has become ‘Shambhala” is consistent with the approach its founder has decided to adopt.  That is, first, rather than insisting that his students learn Tibetan, and come to the text…instead….he thought it appropriate to modify the text, translate it into English, and present it to his students in that form….such that the English form of the sadhanas presented in Shambhala become the norm.  As an even more subtle modification, that allows our Shirat HaNefesh to use a technique that becomes tangent to Shambhala, the understanding developed that the student too easily misunderstands the text when conventionally presented, even in English, and so they developed a requirement for students to practice simple sitting meditation for a period of several years before even beginning to engage in text study.

In this way, I have come to understand that text study, work with liturgies, or “sadhanas” as they are frequently called in Buddhism, is “advanced work,” with respect to the alternative, which is sitting meditation, as the more foundational effort required to begin to make sense of the liturgy.

And at Shirat HaNefesh, what we have now begun to do is introduce sitting meditation, in the context of the more standard practice which is based on the reading of a text…which is what the conventional practice is for the Jewish tradition.

What we will do tomorrow night at the Shambhala Center…is understand something more about this text…the Sadhana of Mahamudra.  Mark, who will present from Halifax, happens to be in the translation group, and was one of Trungpa’s early students, trained in both the nuances of the meaning of the text, and, as it would appear from the advertising for this particular session tomorrow, also prepped to interpret something about its meaning for today.

My purpose in “juxtapositioning” this talk tomorrow night about this Sadhana, for my friends …is that its significance represents a center point in the confluence of multiple streams, to wit:

  • It’s written in English
  • It suggests visualization
  • It is designed for practitioners with little formal study or background
  • It points the practitioner to what is intended to be a place wherein another view of how things are can be understood
  • For people who think that spiritual practice is only or primarily sitting quietly, this group reading of a text might help them understand things differently.

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