The stirring beat of many drums and a festive rise of musical voices broke the serene silence of a sunny and warm Saturday morning on sparkling Georgian Bay.
In a nice surprise for the many attendees of a much-anticipated Mahamudra retreat, Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche—an internationally respected Buddhist teacher—was joyously “drummed in” by people from the local native community. Kathy Hopson, who helped organize, explained: “it is customary to Drum in an Elder or Healer out of Respect.”
The row of drummers accompanied a smiling Rinpoche into the hotel, down the halls to our meditation room, drumming and chanting the entire way. Guests in their hotel rooms must have wondered what was happening.
The crowd in the full-capacity conference room heard the approaching drums, echoing down the halls like a rhythmic heartbeat, and the lovely rising voices of the singers. They continued to drum as Rinpoche crossed the room to the altar, where he would make his prostrations to the Buddha.
Kathy Hopson explained the context of the singing. As Rinpoche entered “we sang the Creation Song, singing of All life, Mother Earth, Father Sky, Water, Fire, Grandfather Moon, Gradfather Rocks and All Earth Birds and Animals.”
This was not the first time Rinpoche was drummed in by native singers and drummers. Previous events in both Nelson, British Columbia and Ontario began with drumming.
A Full House of Meditators
“It’s wonderful there are so many people here in this beautiful place, on this beautiful day for this teaching on Mahamudra,” began Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. (Read Rinpoche’s biography here>>)
Some in the audience were past students, others might have come out of curiosity to see a well-known Buddhist teacher. Several families attended, with well-behaved children along for the experience. The large gathering was quiet and respectful, so much so that during mindfulness practice it was easy to simply focus on the breath. During contemplative moments, the only sound might be birds, muffled yet audible through the windows.
Theodore Tsaousidis, one of the event’s hosts, explained that aside from the beautiful scenery, this event was held in Owen Sound, Ontario “because there’s a lot of interest here.” He put the full capacity attendance in context: “It is natural for these teachings to seem like a new way of looking at life —the way Buddhism looks at how to investigate the meaning of life, and also how to engage life.” Theodore previously organized retreats in Owen Sound with Venerable Zasep Rinpoche, and is himself a visiting teacher at Gaden Choling in Toronto and Medicine Buddha Toronto.
Mahamudra “fits into life just as it is”
Simplicity of practice is one of the reasons Mahamudra is so popular. There are teachings and instructions, as Rinpoche was about to explain, but it can be practiced anywhere, anytime, in any environment (even if this day had turned out grey and cold). It fits into life, just as it is, with no added austerities or commitments. Mahamudra is famous for its ability to reduce stress, stir the joyful mind, and even as a healing practice.
Rinpoche said, “Our lives are so busy, and we have many questions, and our energies are here and there and unsettled—it’s not so easy to be in the present moment, to cultivate mindfulness.”
After the stirring entrance, meditators needed to “settle” their minds for the day of mindful meditations and profound teachings to follow. Rinpoche said, “We will do some praises to help us settle our minds into this present moment.”Rinpoche asked us to chant mantras to help us settle. “Mantra means ‘protection of mind’, protection of spirit, protection of consciousness. To protect the consciousness and mind we use mantras.
“When you chant a mantra it helps relax your body and mind. The mantra energy brings your spirit and consciousness to here, in the present moment. It can generate a peaceful and calming effect on our consciousness. Most of the time, mantras are uplifting, helping our mind go to the transcendental state of meditation, beyond worldly concerns.
“We like to think of mantra as your spiritual companion who supports your journey toward enlightenment.”
Compassion the Essence of the Teaching
When introducing the mantra of Avalokitesvara — Om Mani Padme Hum — Rinpoche stressed this mantra’s importance: “Compassion is the essence of the teaching of the Buddha… It’s important to view our world with a compassionate eye.” We also chanted Shakyamuni and Tara’s mantras.
What is Mahamudra?
Rinpoche introduced the series of five meditations to follow with an explanation of Mahamudra. “Mahamudra is a Sanskrit word. Maha is “great.” Usually mudra is like a gesture or hand gesture.” He used the example of sacred dance, where the entire body of the dancer becomes the mudra. “Here, the Mudra has a slightly different meaning.”
“Mahamudra is ultimately about trying to experience absolute truth.” Rinpoche explained we experience our lives in the sphere of relative truth. Mahamudra helps us explore “what we call absolute truth. Everything is one. Samsara, Nirvana are both part of oneness. Like day and night. There is no day without night. There is no summer without winter. There is no male without female. On the ultimate level reality is oneness, what we call shunyata, which literally means ’emptiness.’ Emptiness actually means voidness.”
Relative and Ultimate Mahamudra
Rinpoche explained that there are two experiences in Mahamudra: Vipassana and Shamatha. Vipassana corresponds with “ultimate Mahamudra” while Samatha helps us explore “relative Mahamudra.”
Shamatha is basically the practice of calming the mind through some form of single-pointed meditation—such as watching the breath. Vipassana literally means to see things as they really are. Rinpoche added, “In order to experience ultimate Vipassana Mahamudra, we start with conventional Mahamudra — Shamatha Mahamudra.”
Instructions in Shamatha Mahamudra
The retreat began with a guided meditation in Shamatha Mahamudra. “Shamatha Mahamudra is cultivating calm abiding mind, cultivating both calmness and awareness. Mindfulness.” Tranquility meditation helps overcome the day-to-day mind that never rests, always agitated by anxiety, regret, misery and a disturbing emotions.
For this practice Rinpoche instructed us to sit in a comfortable position, “however you feel comfortable. You can sit on a meditation cushion, a zabuton, you can sit on a bench, or on a chair. Please make yourself comfortable.” He emphasized the importance of keeping the back upright and straight. “Keep your back straight. That’s very necessary… This way you can breath properly.”
He instructed us in the mudra of meditative equipoise, and demonstrated the ideal seated position—vajra or lotus with hands in the mudra of meditative equipoise.
Why Mudra of Meditative Equipoise is Important
“This mudra is symbolic of oneness, like a circle, like the sun and the moon and the world,” Rinpoche explained, after instructing us to place our slightly cupped right hand inside our left, then creating an oval shape by joining the two thumbs.
In explaining the importance of this mudra, he reminded us of how we always keep our hands “busy, busy” always moving, pointing, waving, and texting on phones. “Today you see people holding iphones all the time. Even if they’re driving, they’re using their iphones. When they travel, as soon as the airplane lands they can’t wait, they’re already sending text messages. The hand is always busy, busy, busy.
“Here, we do this mudra to tell our body to ‘stop!’ What becomes important is mindfulness.”
He instructed us to try to breath only through the nose, and half-close our eyes, with head slightly tilted. He explained the entire seven point posture of Mahamudra, but then invited us to remain comfortable, not to force our posture.
The correct posture, if we are physically able to do so in comfort is called the Seven Dharmas posture, the seven aspects which bring mental focus. If the body is correctly settled, it will help calm the agitated mind, or its apparent opposite, invigorate the torpid mind:
- First, sit on some kind of cushion. Rinpoche added that the ideal seated position, is the vajra position (also known as Lotus position)—as long as we can manage it without discomfort. He advised us not to worry if we had to use a chair, bench or support, but re-emphasized the straight back.
- Next, we place our hands in the mudra of meditative equipoise, to stop our “busy hands.”
- Spine as straight as possible without rigidity. Rinpoche explained that the subtle channels, winds and energies of our subtle bodies flow best if posture is straight.
- Shoulders pushed back a bit, but relaxed. We are to be wakeful, yet not rigid.
- Neck slightly bent forward (which tends to naturally happen when seated with a straight spine).
- Touch tongue to the palate. This has a pragmatic purpose. As we relax our minds, saliva continues to flow and can fill our mouths, forcing us to swallow constantly. If the tongue touches the palate this isn’t an issue.
- Rinpoche instructed us to mostly close our eyes, but not entirely. Closing the eyes completely can encourage a sleepy session. Open eyes are a little too distracting.
Our first meditation was Anapanasati (sometimes pronounced Anapranasati), literally ‘mindfulness of breathing.’ Rinpoche explained, “Sati is mindfulness. Prana is breath. So we do mindfulness of breathing.”
Rinpoche guided the meditation in a gentle, soothing voice. “I would like you to now focus on your breath. Breathe in, long, and breathe out, long, breath in, long, breath out, long. When you breathe in, you can feel your abdomen rising. When you breathe out, your abdomen falling. Feel the sensation of your abdomen rising, and falling, as you breath in, cultivate mindfulness of breathing.”
Anapanasati, mindfulness of breath, helps cultivate the seven factors of awakening as defined the Anapanasati Sutta:
- sati (mindfulness)
- dhamma vicaya (analysis)
- viriya (persistence)
- piti (rapture)
- passadhi (serenity)
- samadhi (concentration)
- upekkha (equanimity)
Rinpoche said it can be thought of as a purifying, settling practice, “purifying our mind, purifying our body, purifying our karma. Mindfulness meditation is very beneficial. It is the bridge between body and mind. We focus on the breath, the bridge.”
Handling Distractions: the Ringing Phone Incident
As we meditated on the breath, growing more and more mindful — and relaxed — Rinpoche gently offered guidance: “Whenever your thoughts wander, or go somewhere else, looking and thinking, just make a mental note. Note that your mind is somewhere other than on the breath. Then, simply return to the breath.”
Ironically, a phone started ringing at this precise moment, followed by a flurry of “sorry, sorry, sorry” from the audience member who forgot to turn off the phone. Rinpoche didn’t miss a beat, continuing in his soothing voice, he coached us to keep us mindfully focused on the breath.
Preparation for Mahamudra
“Meditation is not something you can fully experience within a short time,” Rinpoche said, as a precursor to a dissertation on preparation for Mahamudra. “There is no instant realization. Today, people would like to have everything instant. If anything happens instantly, this experience may not necessarily be genuine… Like learning a craft, we have to learn how to do it properly, and practice. We need to invest conviction, motivation and effort. It takes time. We need to practice meditation diligently, and step by step. You shouldn’t feel discouraged when you don’t get instant results.”
Rinpoche cautioned, “Even if, in your mind, you don’t feel there is progress, even if you don’t feel something tangible, you are still moving forward step by step. When you turn back to look, you’ll be surprised how far you’ve come.”
“So, remember, when you meditate, it doesn’t matter if you see signs of progress, it is always beneficial. That’s why it’s important to have patience and perseverance.”
Obstacles in Meditation
Rinpoche prepared us for the various obstacles we might face in Mahamudra meditation. “There are two main obstacles. One is called the wandering mind or agitated mind. The other obstacle is dullness, or sleepiness. If you sit and relax you might find yourself getting sleepy. Why do we get sleepy? “Because, during the day, our minds are always busy, busy, busy. We don’t know how to relax our minds.” He gave the example of people who go for acupuncture or massage and fall asleep.
Rinpoche explained why we should value our obstacles. Obstacles are opportunities to practice, “they are blessings. So many obstacles in our lives turn into blessings.”
“The key thing is awareness. If your mind is wandering, as long as you remain aware, then it’s a good meditation. Even if you get sleepy, if you’re aware, if you notice it, then it’s beneficial.”
Related: Video Ngondro Series (Foundation Practices) with H.E. Zasep Rinpoche:
Ngondro Video 1: Foundation Practices
Ngondro Video 2: The Truth of Suffering, and a Guided Meditation on Shakyamuni Buddha
Ngondro Video 3: Purifying the Obstacles of Dharma Practice
End Thoughts: Excerpt from Anapasati Sutta
Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.
About Zasep Tulku Rinpoche
Rinpoche is the spiritual guide for Gaden for the West—with several meditation centres across Canada, Australia and the United States. He travels extensively, teaching several times each year in parts of Canada, Australia, the US and Mongolia. Rinpoche received many teachings and initiations from other great lamas, legendary teachers such as: Yongzin Trijang Rinpoche, His Holiness Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Venerable Geshe Thupten Wanggyel, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, Venerable Lati Rinpoche, Venerable Tara Tulku Rinpoche and Venerable Khalkha Jetsun Dampa Rinpoche. (More about Zasep Tulku Rinpoche>>)
About Host Theodore Tsaousidis
Theodore Tsaousidis has been conscious of his spiritual journey from an early age. Born in a rural community in Greece surrounded by mountains and valleys, he was profoundly shaped by nature and the ancient tradition of village elders and healers. His connection to nature and the spirit world is an integral part of who he is – as is his dedication to the Zen training he has followed for 30 years. He is also blessed by the guidance of the Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. His healing and shamanic sharing stem from, his cultural roots, personal experience. and Tibetan and Buddhist traditions. Theodore sees shamanism and meditation as a great alchemy for the healing of self and other.
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.