A Strategic View: Two books & more
I created this website because I felt that, by a combination of happenstance and natural seeking, I uncovered a view….a life orientation….also guided by a strategy for practice.
The first of two books that galvanized this view is mentioned on the home page. Written by Arnold Rosenberg – Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System: A Prayer by Prayer Explanation of the Nature and Meaning of Jewish Worship…. It describes the basic approach that drives the view, however….this book and view I think makes more sense when its ostensible underpinnings are further explained in a book I later realized connects very well with this understanding. This other book is written by Jamgon Kongtrul – Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation.
In some measure, the approach is pointed to on the home page of this website: jewbu.org. But, let me backtrack.
Although I was about to re-create a description here about a co-ordination between awareness and concentration….and this could be correct, and has been discussed in other places….more fundamentally, what I find I’m talking about is the essential elements: mindfulness and awareness. These two elements coordinate throughout the journey of practice. Again, observed and commented on skillfully by Chogyam Trungpa, of blessed memory, they are like the two wings of a bird, and are documented on substantively, with respect to their “back and forth” throughout the nine yana journey…in at least one of his summer seminaries.
For those who, through a natural process of engagement with life, find themselves drawn to wish to see more clearly than they might otherwise do….there is a drive to have available to themselves a more keen awareness than might more naturally otherwise be available to them.
In saying this, there is no speculation nor any drive to other realms of existence that are not otherwise well exposed. The sense is that, quite apart from unseen higher realms, one is motivated to more clearly, simply, see what is already ahead, but too frequently obscured. So, it is like peeling an onion. Perhaps, metaphorically, we’re trying to go to the center. Nevertheless, the process is one of steadfastly staying right here.
With respect to strategies for enhancing this awareness…there is a midrash that…while it is very hard for one person to find their own way by themselves…it is good to be working with a “pathmaker,” i.e., someone else other than ones own self who has found their way. So, because they have pointed the way to a path…so…you can do this, too.
Now, it may be that the discipline of psychology will have something to say about the dance between mindfulness, or concentration on the one hand…and awareness on the other, but….as I understand it…their coordinating relationship has been worked out in the Buddhism of Tibet. In a secondary source…in Robert Thurman’s Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness, he talks about how the Tibetan culture had over centuries worked out an “enlightenment machine & system,” and Thurman provides an argument for how the Buddhism of Tibet had a unique incubation time to work out many many things.
Certainly, consistent with this understanding, when Chogyam Trungpa laid out a system of development for his students from the early 1970s and well beyond, now followed by his son into the present time, there is the direction to begin with a technique that focuses on an awareness oriented practice…while at the same time, very much mixing together mindfulness and awareness in that same practice. And then, after a time, and some trust has been earned, with respect to a dual appreciation on the part of the teacher who can see the student is dedicated to seeing clearly, and on the part of the student who grows in their skills in doing this…then a program of mindfulness, or concentration….is introduced….which I will say is intended to enhance the students engagement with awareness.
So, backtracking one more time…
Mindfulness actually first is needed for awareness.
And then, as awareness is cultivated, mindfulness is brought back in again, but with a new face. It is mindfulness with form.
In the first introduction to mindfulness, the student is directed to attend to the breath. This gets them into a steady interaction with reality, also, and allows the student to even be in the room, rather than be vacationing in Bermuda while being in the room.
By cultivating this attention, the student finds they ARE in the room, over time, and thereby naturally discovers the quality of awareness. Nothing is created in this case, and there is no extension of faith or investment in belief that is required to sustain this practice, and its value is naturally experienced, in terms of the truth of the experience that is exposed.
And then, as it has developed in the Tibetan tradition (and as I surmise it was intended to be taught implicitly in the Jewish tradition), the student learns to work with images. In the Buddhism of Tibet, and also, in the normative Jewish tradition, these images are presented in texts. They are called sadhanas in Tibetan Buddhism. In Jewish practice, the text is our siddur. And, the practice is to engage the words.
As Jamgon Kongtrul, in his Creation & Completion taught, when working with the words of a text, the student does three things. I’ll write them in the order that I think is conventionally understood, but this is somewhat speculation.
a) The student visualizes what is written in the text.
So, this is basic Tibetan Buddhism 101. And, it is the central thesis of Rosenberg’s Jewish Liturgy as a Spiritual System. Very much, this directs the student to be mind-full…have his mind full with this activity. Then, also…
b) The student seeks to connect the meaning of the image with what it symbolizes.
I think some commentators in Tibetan Buddhist practice place this as second in importance to item (a). However, I think it can also represent exactly how one visualizes what one visualizes, perhaps. As I frequently describe the Mah Tovu prayer as optimizing this strategy in the Jewish Liturgy…as the davvener begins prayer, they are asked to visualize the transformation of their ordinary surroundings to that of like a palace, engaging the right frame of mind. This is a visualization practice based on understanding the underlying meaning of the words in the text. Without knowing this underlying meaning, the visualization doesn’t work so well. So this piece is important.
c) Re the third aspect addressed in Kongtrul (see especially the preface, but read the text if you like, which is dense for me), and being mindful that this site is designed to reflect on both Jewish & Buddhist practice, I’ll first say that, explicitly, two things are true for Buddhist practice:
- That the practitioner is directed to only engage in this “advanced” and secret practice after first appreciating what either could be called “non-theism,” or rather, that one is not praying for the purpose of having god save you, or having the expectation that your prayers will be answered. Also, and literally, describing aspect three directly, the student is asked to:
- Have pride in the deity. By which I mean…Tibetan Buddhism is also known for having various gods that are visualized. Though this causes problems for some Jews, who ostensibly either believe in one G-d, or that everything is G-d, Buddhist are encouraged to see things in a “layered” way. Meaning…first….
- You need to pull up your own socks. This is either Hinayana or basic Theravadin training in individual salvation. If I am not for myself, who will be for me.
- After having developed a commitment to care for oneself, you later, like the mom who is instructed to put on one’s own air mask on a plane going down before they help their child…then….then…they should absolutely help their child. And every sentient being.
- After both of these developments…The student can see more accurately the details of the world, and in this case, I understand techniques both aerobic and anaerobic metaphorically, have been created to aid in the development of seeing clearly. So, as against the “doing nothing” of awareness…there is the “doing something” of visualizing…creating an aerobic counterpoint to the doing nothing practice of just attending to what is going on.
- So, when we say the student has “pride in the deity,” first, they do understand there is no substantial deity, but also
- Based on the symbol system ascribed to the deity, they at the same time, transparently, embody the described aspects, and then
- Carry a certain attitude consistent with this practice…of pride. A transparent, but tangible pride.
And, so what is that pride like? It is only conjecture on my part, and both an appreciation for where we have come from as a Jewish people, and also, an extension into today of what I understand has probably been intended by this “view,” but the corresponding view I have thought to apply in Jewish practice, to what Kongtrul has called “pride of the deity” in Tibetan Buddhist practice is…
A feeling of chosenness…long standing in Jewish practice.
The feeling of chosenness is easily transformed, and simply so…considering the language applied by the editor, Joe Rosenstein, of the siddur we use in our community, Eit Ratzon, who, in the morning blessings, translates that the davvener is grateful to be Jewish, mindful of inheriting an enriching tradition. And that’s it.
Let me provide two more sets of evidence for the ideas presented here.
In New York, second generation students of our Shambhala Community have created a program called the Interdependence Project. Though it uses the tagline of presenting “secular Buddhism,” it is arguable that such a qualifier is needed, or that it adds any enhancement. Regardless, the view explicitly encouraged by the leaders of this community reinforces what I’ve tried to describe here, and they torque it somewhat.
They have called out 3 bootstraps available to practitioners: a drive for a) waking oneself with mindfulness/awareness practices, b) the use of tools for engaging empathy, and c) then tools of visualization to continue in ones growth. And, as I’ve suggested, they see that in the tonglen practice associated with step #2 (b above), they recognize how it embryonically embraces the visualization practices that will be used in the 3rd approach.
Also in New York is my now friend Philip Richman, who again also trained in what is now referred to as Shambhala Buddhism, He wrote a book called The Shofar and the White Conch. In it, not only does he also write about, in an enriching way, the dual natures of Jewish & Buddhist Practice (he subtitles his book: A text of Vajrayana Judaism), but he was motivated to create his own Jewish Buddhist sadhana. Importantly, he also found it appropriate to discuss in his text the idea of Creation and Completion as a core underpinning element of his work.
Essentially, what does the title in the book, Creation & Completion…point to?
Although the way meditative approaches to working with texts has evolved in the presentation of Tibetan Buddhism in Shambhala…,one begins a period of practice with formless, mindfulness awareness practice…after this initial period…then…
By engaging with a text (sadhana, liturgy, what have you), you then…
As you read, you create the world presented by the text. And then, when that part of the practice session is concluded… you stop. At that point, you engage in:
Having stopped creating…you rest in that created space.
Recently, in discussing with my rabbi, I think he felt it suitable to talk about “sealing” a text with a closing part.
I think these would be equivalent ideas….
But, I think we do conventionally seal our Jewish prayers with Aleinu. As it happens, it is also a prayer “marked” by the idea of our chosenness.