Mudra Space Awareness is one the least practiced and understood of the traditions introduced by Trungpa Rinpoche in the 1970s.  Now,  three recent trends of Shambhala Buddhism help us to understand the meaning of this powerful practice ­ and how it can serve a vital new purpose.

By Craig Warren Smith,  Phd, Founder,  Mudra Institute       

A version of this article was published in The Dot, the newspaper of the Shambhala Buddhist community, in Fall 2005.

30-day deep retreat (2004)

As recited by mild-mannered docents in  oriental art museums everywhere,  “mudras” are physical gestures you see in depictions of buddhas or deities.  But in the wild days of the early 70s,  Trungpa Rinpoche presented Mudra gestures that would have sent those docents running for cover. In his Mudra Space Awareness, each exercise demanded that practitioners rouse the totality of their body/mind/emotions and then make a wrenching leap into boundless space.

Not everyone who tried it liked it. Pious zen students, skilled in the fine art of “just sitting” said it wasn’t real meditation. Hippy yogis who tried said it make them feel unbalanced. Isadora Duncan wannabes, drawn to rumors of Mudra’s  affiliation with exotic Tibetan dance, found it horribly harsh.Those eager to start counting mantras  dismissed it as an artsy diversion from hard-core spirituality.

But those early Mudra sessions became the most significant of my life, and they haunt me still. Though I became an entrepreneur,  a university professor, and a social activist,  my real life’s work has been to ponder why this enigmatic practice made such an impact on me back then ­- and to consider how our community could be put to new use now.

When it was introduced,  those of us who loved Mudra Space Awareness couldn’t have told you why.  Presented without a logical framework, it blew apart our concepts, stopped our minds, and left us…just there.  Even when Rinpoche wasn’t leading the exercises,  it generated the crazy-wisdom atmosphere we felt in Trungpa’s presence. In Boulder, Berkeley and New York City,  Mudra groups and Mudra groupies emerged spontaneously. We met as frequently as three evenings a week and the gatherings sometimes spilling into weekend marathons. Radical and raw, Mudra was briefly our community’s left wing,  alongside the seemly more conservative Vajradhatu mandala.  Though it continued to flourish within Naropa’s theatre department, Mudra fell from grace by late 1970s in the sangha at large.

The reasons for Mudra’s demise are not hard to decipher.  One reason may be that in the mid-70s Rinpoche had found his historic moment to reinvent all the linear paths and stages of Buddhist and Shambhalian teachings,  reviving in the West traditions that were languishing in Asia.  While planting monasticism in Nova Scotia and breaking Shambhala terma into levels of training, it is not surprising that Mudra didn’t end up high on our communities list of priorities.

That may change.  From our vantage point now,  30 years after those primal Mudra sessions,  three new factors have reshaped our community. Each, in separate ways point back to Mudra and together they form a compelling case for offering a front-and-center place for this practice in the next phase of the development of Shambhala Buddhism.


Factor #1:  Mudra as Mahamudra.  

Now that mahamudra understanding has spread within our community,  a framework has emerged for Mudra as a secular method for investigating the nondual nature of mind.

In one of his question-and-answer sessions held after witnessing a Mudra practice in Berkeley in 1974,  Rinpoche casually noted that Mudra reflects mahamudra understanding ­- one of the highest expression of vajrayana wisdom traditions.  We didn’t pay much attention to such comments. It was enough that we involved in Rinpoche’s response to the glamorous innovators in the theatre world ­- people like Peter Brook in Paris,  Jerzy Grotowski in Poland, Joseph Chaiken in New York. At this point in our development, these luminaries transfixed us more than Padmasambhava or Milarepa.

Remember, most of us were in our early 20s.  As we came of age, so did our appreciation for mahamudra.  To be sure,  an inner view of mahamudra is available only to those who have received formal transmission.  Nonetheless,  the logic of mahamudra has spread steadily throughout our community.  Two khempos are largely responsible:  Trangu Rinpoche and Tsultrim Gympso. Other teachers, notably Dzochen Punlop Rinpoche and a host of Shambhala’s own senior teachers,  led by Ashe Acharya John Rockwell and the Nalanda Translation Committee reinforce this work. Hundreds of pages of transcripts of mahamudra teachings are now in the public record.

Thanks to this body of work,  Mudra is no longer ineffable. We can now look beyond the surface to the reality that Trungpa Rinpoche was trying to evoke. By appearance,  Mudra Space Awareness is not remarkable: a series of experiential exercises, performed in a sequence. The most notorious of Mudra exercises are “intensifications” in which practitioners squeeze their muscles for good stretches of time while holding a specific posture, and then sometimes reversing the action, totally letting go, while still holding the form.  Another set of exercises examine the inner workings of each sense perception.  Others involve body movement,  design,  improvisation, performance.  These are similar to any number of body-work methods, sensory-awareness programs, or theatre-training techniques that you see  advertised on the telephone-poll fliers of university towns everywhere.  No big deal.

What is a big deal is that Trungpa found a way of presenting without reinforcing the idea of a solid, separate, primary self. Quite a feat. As we now know from the mahamudra teachings,  the logic that ego uses to confirm its own selfhood runs deep,  not only in our thoughts, but also in the way our senses  function.  Beyond that, ego also shapes a distorted idea of the body, as if it were a nesting ground for something called me. Lacking mahamudra wisdom, most methods of mind/body awareness,  including hatha yoga as “self improvement” and many new age practices actually reinforce ego.

In the mahamudra tradition,  mudra points to “space,” not ego,  as the central feature of mind.  The self -­ including the subtle Self that mystics extol ­- is nothing more than constricted centralized ball of space, a “this-ness” which functions as ego’s control mechanism. Moving from one Mudra exercise to another,  this constricted “central headquarters” loses its grip. Space becomes vast, vivid. Letting go into this big space, we may get a glimmer of what the vajrayanists call “luminosity.”

Grasping for concepts to describe such experiences, most of us were at a loss. But Rinpoche asked us to persist anyway. I remember one Q&A session, a Mudra practitioner asked why we should even try to find language to describe experiences that seemed to defy logic. Rinpoche replied that,  “When you have raw nondual experience,  you need new language that effectively labels these experiences. It gives you a power of communication that can you can use to protect the quality of your experience.”

In this context,  “body work” becomes something altogether different than what’s advertised on those telephone polls in the fliers advertising methods of all kinds.  In Mudra,  “body” ­- the thing we see in a full-length mirror — is not the body known to our experience.  Our felt sense of body is its own space,  a field,  which does not belong to “me” but to the realm of touch ­ the medium thorugh which the body makes its imprint on mind.  “Developing the body” Mudra style  doesn’t mean going to the gym to pump muscles.  It means knowing how to get out of the way, let the touch-senses move into the foreground. Likewise, visual perception,  sound,  smelling and tasting are all intersecting fields of experience,  each of which has to be discovered on its own terms.  In other words, what we have in Mudra is literally a practice from outer space.  Devoid of me-logic,   it allows us to grope towards an experience of raw, unfiltered mind ­ and then gives us words to describe this experience matter of factly.

Factor #2:   Mudra as Contemplation

Thanks to our community’s embrace of lojong contemplative practices,  we can see Mudra exercises as powerful tools for achieving fully integrated dharmic lifestyles.

Growing up Christians or Jewish,  most of us are familiar with prayer:  the moment of silence, with bowed heads in which we are asked to contemplate godly principles in hopes that they would uplift our everyday activity.  In most cases prayer happens without any understanding of how to effectively turn around deep-seated egotistic tendencies.  In Buddhism,  contemplation goes further. In a practice called lojong,  or mind-training,  brought to Tibet in the 11th century by Indian master Atisha Dipamkara, one contemplates slogans that are each antidotes to ego.  In our community,  Pema Chodren is noted not just for awakening large Western audiences to dharma, but of her brilliant understanding of Atisha’s teachings.  One of these lojong practices is tonglen, in which the practitioners gains the skill to intervene into, and actually reverse, ego’s defensive response to situations.  The practice of Tonglen is a mudra, a “gesture” in which the practitioner gains emotional intelligence.  One learns not to be the victim of one’s own emotions.

Doing tonglen effectively requires that the practioner knows her own emotional state,  and is aware of the interplay between breath,  thought, emotions and sense perception.  This knowledge is Mudra’s territory.   Being aware of space,  one can be empowered as a contemplative actor,  capable of gestures that triumph over ego.  Understanding lojong in this way,  we see that Mudra is in fact not merely a theatre training program.  It is a contemplative practice with a transformative potential to impact every aspect of life.

Factor #3:  Mudra as Engaged Buddhism

After issuing a command to “create enlightened society,” Shambala Buddhism put engagement atop its agenda.  Through  its approach to making a “gesture” of non-duality, Mudra can help us transcend our dharmic comfort zones, and magnify our impact on the world.

In the late 1970s,  Trungpa Rinpoche may have neglected Mudra because his he found his historic moment to establish paths and stages to Buddhist and Shambhala practices.  Our community wasn’t mature;  neither we were as practitioners. Brash 20-somethings,  we thought we could change the world, though we didn’t know our our own minds.  So Rinpoche commanded us to build a practice infrastructure that we used to stabilize our own minds,  and create a pathway for generations to follow in our wake.

Now that structure is in place.  Meanwhile, the larger world calls for dharmic wisdom. Despite our embrace of meditation-in-action,  Western Buddhism shows signs of self-absorption.  Many of us seek out enclaves that are protected from the harshness of “the world.”   Targeting this tendency,   Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, in articulating the Shambhala teachings,  has called upon contemporary warriors to face discord directly and pledge ourselves directly to service outside of our community.

Mudra, it seems, is the ideal tool.   Calling upon 100% effort on behalf of nondual reality,  the exercises rip us from our dharmic comfort zones and give us the zest we need to take on the forces of materialism that are leading us rapidly into a dark age. It is not for the faint-hearted. But it is built to make faint hearts into fearless hearts — fearless enough to let go of duality and leap headlong into reality.


By Craig Warren Smith


Craig Warren Smith teaching in 2005

In the period between 1972 and 1976, Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche developed a training program that eventually was called “Mudra Space Awareness”. The Mudra approach developed parallel to the Maitri Space Awareness Practice. Just as Maitri addressed concerns of mental health practitioners, Mudra related to the central issues of theater, which he broadly defined to include performance art, dance, “body work”, music, visual arts, design principles.

Currently, Mudra Space Awareness is being extended to relate to group process and organizational development methodologies. The exercises are also being applied more generally by practitioners as tools to establish continuity between formal meditation practices and worldly situations.

Apart from an historic theater workshop held in Colorado in 1972 and other informal gatherings held afterwards, the Vidyadhara never presented his teachings on Mudra in public settings. Very little was recorded. He gave out exercises to small practice groups in Boulder, Berkeley and New York City. They met as often as three times per week and occasionally held public performances. After being invited periodically to observe practice sessions, Rinpoche offered comments and responded to questions. This commentary, over time, resulted in a body of work that only much later seemed to constitute a coherent set of teachings. They were never known to most members of the Vajradhatu or Shambhala sangha.

These comments are recollections from my own personal contact with the practice. I worked with space awareness as a member of the Berkeley-based Mudra group in the 1970’s, as a Naropa Institute instructor, and as a workshop leader who traveled throughout North America to introduce the practice to Dharmadhatus. In June of 1995, after a 19-year gap, I began working with these teachings again in a small space awareness practice group in Seattle and once again began conducting workshops. Several other teachers who worked with the Vidydhara in the early years also continue to conduct workshops.


The Vidyadhara drew upon three influences to create these exercises.

Monastic Dance: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche became acquainted with dance training when he was the young abbot of Surmang monasteries in Eastern Tibet. By separating the principles of this dance training from its iconographic forms, he conveyed to his Western students the underlying meaning of the training and related it to contemporary theatre approaches.

Western Theatre: Mudra also resulted from his interactions with an international network of experimental theater directors and actors. The early 70’s was a period of great Renaissance in international theater. Several of the path breaking directors, playwrights were able to see the relevance of Buddhism to their work much earlier than those in other professions. For example, Grotowski (in Poland) and Brook (in Paris) were exploring the concept of “monastic dance”. To them, the function of theater was not to entertain but to transform the audience. In New York, Experimental theater groups, such as the Open Theater and Living Theater, were shaking up conventions by exploring ways to break through the separation between actor and audience. Performance artists such as Merideth Monk cut through the audience’s expectations to achieve a non-conceptual perception of sound, sight and movement. Rinpoche made a particular impression on the principals of New York City’s Open Theater, much as Joe Chaiken, Jean-Claude Van Itallie and Lee Worley. Ms. Worley later worked with Rinpoche’s teachings on theater and space awareness in Naropa’s theater program which she steadfastly developed over many years.

Meditation-in-Action: Meditation in action was a dominant theme of Rinpoche’s early teachings and the title of his first popular book. He challenged his students to extend the principles of meditation into ordinary everyday situations. Rinpoche also considered the arts to be vehicles for achieving continuous awareness. His teachings on flower arrangement, calligraphy, Kyudo, all reflect the themes that are developed in the direct-perception exercises of Mudra Space Awareness.


After reflecting on the experience of Mudra many years, I discern several principles of the practice. It will be easier to understand these principles after actually doing the exercises. They are summarized below.

1. To achieve a fresh experience of an everyday activity, it is useful to slow it down, break it into its component parts, and then reconstruct it in a laboratory-like setting.

Any form of “doing” –– walking, talking, watching television, — can be a vehicle for awareness of direct experience, or it can draw us away from direct experience in a way that is dictated by habit. Normally, the purposefulness or frivolity associated with everyday activities seduce our attention and lead us away from direct perception. We fail to relate to the distinct structure of our sensory experience during the activity. In other words, we take the activity for granted. Our attention extends beyond the activity to what it might do for us.

By breaking everyday experience into its component parts, and then seeing how these parts fit together, we can begin to appreciate the intrinsic nature of the activity. The activity becomes freed to express itself. We can re-claim the activity on its own terms.

2. Proper “doing” involves establishing a “light touch” relationship with whatever is in the center of our experience. We can establish this light touch by drawing our attention to the periphery.

In sitting meditation, the breath is the reference point. In other activities, the reference point changes. In walking, it is stepping. In eating, it is chewing. In each activity, the reference point can be made into a vehicle for awareness. The key is to relate with each reference point with a light touch. In sitting meditation we are instructed to breath with a light touch — no more than 25% of our attention.

Similarly, in walking meditation, we relate to stepping just as we relate to breath in sitting. That doesn’t mean that we should exhale with our feet. It means that stepping draws only a quarter of our total attention. The rest of our perception is devoted to the total context that surrounds each step, the space around it . The fact that most of your awareness is not attending to stepping does not mean that you will fall down. The opposite is true: each step becomes more secure. At the same time, the larger meaning of the experience of walking dawns on us. Stepping can be used as a trigger to wake up one’s total sensory experience. Thus, center and periphery are put in balance.

3. By becoming on intimate terms with the workings of each of the sense fields, we can more easily maintain awareness amid activity.

Our senses are not just body organs that correspond to objects “out there”. They are fields of awareness, each with its own intrinsic structure, each with its distinct way of conveying meaning. But normally our communication with the sense fields is quite restricted, Typically our senses are forced to work on ego’s terms. For example, while we are walking we fixate with our eyes because it helps us maintain balance and it masks our fear of falling. The effect is not just to wipe out the panoramic nature of the visual field but also to destroy subtle impressions of sound, touch and smell. Thus, we forget what every child knows: how to relate to our senses on their own terms. The space awareness exercises can give us direct experience into seeing, hearing, touching, tasting. They convey a vocabulary for speaking about the peculiar interplay of forms and space that takes place in each of the sense fields. This knowledge is the first step towards developing a new sensibility. The exercises show us how to release the sense fields rather than hold them in a tight and mean-spirited grip.

As we move from one activity to another a different sense field may move to center stage; other sense fields fall into the periphery. The challenge at that point is to withstand being seduced into putting too much of our attention to the center of our experience. Sometimes, it’s almost impossible. For example, consider what happens when you watch Schwartzenegger action films. They draw upon the full possibilities of technology to concentrate 100% of our attention on the reference point (the film content) in order to establish our full involvement in the illusion on the screen. Perhaps such films should only be watched by advanced space awareness practitioners who know how to keep their presence in the midst of such powerful seduction. And, even then, they should be assigned to carefully taste each piece of popcorn while watching!

4. Awareness of sense fields is also the key to creativity.

The point of Mudra space awareness training isn’t just to resist Hollywood producers and other local deities who would wish to destroy our awareness A larger purpose is to help us to become creative. By enabling us to transcend habitual ways of using our senses, we discover how to draw directly from the raw material of our senses and respond to our experience through creative gesture.

The first step towards creativity is to understand that our expression does not exist in a vacuum. Even before we act, there is already a lot going on. All of it fresh. All of it unique. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be so awestruck by the phenomenal world that we are cowed into silence. Knowing when to act and how to act depends to a great degree on being open to – and responding to – what our own sense fields are “saying” at a given moment. Being spontaneous means simply answering back.

Those who are skillful in improvisation in music or dance say their actions are merely dictated by the structure of their experience. Space awareness shows us that the same is true for ordinary experience. Spontaneity is not wildness. It is taking responsibility for what is already there. It means making gestures that reflect the up-to-date sensory content of each moment.

5. Total involvement is the key to developing the proper motive.

Though many of us romanticize a state of being open to the full play of our senses, in fact our relationship to our sense is based on deep-seated ambivalence. Ambivalence is based on not fully wanting to be at any given point. We may feel we need to drive the car, bur we don’t want to do it totally. Any activity that involves us 100% is threatening because it removes the ground of ego. We have no place to hang out, no snug cocoon.

This is why space awareness exercises have an outrageous quality. They demand total involvement. They are not for everybody, particularly not for dharma-ridden practitioners who insist on keeping their spirituality in a little box.

6. Letting go of purposefulness requires trusting space.

Purposelessness is an important part of Mudra. Without abandoning our practical needs, we should cultivate a sense that each activity is valid in its own right, not just as a way of getting from point A to point B. But how to achieve purposelessness? One way is to trust space. Our need to constantly adhere to a goal orientation is based in part on our fear of space. So, in Mudra, a challenge for the practitioner is to expose themselves to experiences where they are called upon to trust space. In physical postures, for example, one can experience space as substantial and capable of actually holding up one’s body

7. Tension equals relaxation.

Normally most of us are trying to flee states of tension and find states of relaxation. But in Mudra, tension and relaxation two sides of the same coin and in some sense they are equal. Normally, in the neurotic state, the body represents a patchwork of points of relaxation and points of tension. The two work together to create a sense of cocoon in which the self is experienced as separate from other. Mudra exercises that work with physical postures build a state or total intensification or total relaxation. In either case, the aim is to overcome the ambivalent interplay of tension and relaxation. When the practitioners are fully relaxed or fully tensed they feel much the same way because the involvement is total.

8. Awareness requires generosity.

Awareness requires giving up “this” and opening to “that.” By opening your heart, it becomes possible to open the gateway of the senses. As the eyes loosen their grip on reality, space is created that creates room for smell, touch, and hearing. We are more apt to appreciate the style of other persons, rather than demand that they conform to our expectations. Thus, compassion and space awareness are inseparable.


Mudra space awareness is group practice. Rinpoche never encouraged students to do the exercises individually – perhaps because of their intensity. Each member takes turn leading the exercises, called “shadowing”. Each shadow offers his or her own interpretation of each exercise and there is room for broad interpretation of how each exercise should be led.

The exercises are of four types:

1. Guided sitting meditations: Sifting can be part of space awareness practice. Guided meditations may be given by a leader who takes practitioners through a careful exploration of sense fields, an examination of the sensory composition of the breath, and the experience of body.

2. Body Work: Various exercises work with “intensification” in specific postures, followed by “relaxation”.

Intensification involves drawing upon your imagination to conceive of space crowding in around your body and your body mounting opposition. The body tenses all muscles. Psychologically as well as physically, one develops total engagement until there is seamless, nonfluctuating experience of total solidity, thus “intensification”. Generally, this experience is worked up from the feet up through the head.

After a few minutes, at shadow’s direction, the practitioner lets go of intensification and abruptly switches into total relaxation (without altering the posture in any way.) This is the flip-side of intensification, or “relaxation.” It is experienced by consciously letting go of any fixation associated with body or mind. Often it is worked up from the feet to the head as before. It generally lasts for about two to seven minutes.

Often intensification/relaxation exercises are associated with movement. For example, it is possible to do walking meditation while intensified or relaxed.

In some cases, specific body parts are intensified while others are not. In one exercise, called “cutting through”, the right arm takes the form of a blade while the left arm is soft like a feather. The right arm extends in a circle, eventually making contact with the soft left arm.

3. Exercises specific to a sense field: Some excises have been developed to bring out a awareness of (and generate creative responses to ) specific sense fields. For example, one visual exercise is called “scanning.” It can be conducted while seated or standing. It involves moving the visual field as a whole very slowly in a 180 degree of 360 degree rotation. Various sound exercises have been developed to examine the sound field, work with the sound of one’s voice. “Sound cycles” were developed by the Vidyadhara as a way of helping the speaker understand the intrinsic meaning of vowels and to understand the interplay of sound and content. Some exercises work directly with musical instruments.

4. Group Interactions: Some exercises are explicitly designed for group interactions. Such as “weaving” which involves walking around members standing in a circle with the aim of experiencing the subtle interaction that occurs when one’s body comes within proximity of another body. Other exercises for groups involve placement of objects or efforts to develop a sense of presence while participating within a group.

5. Design exercises: Some exercises evoke design principles. A number have been created to give people direct experience with heaven, earth and man principles. In some cases, Mudra exercises have been combined with efforts to understand the Five Buddha Families, which is a major part of Maitri Space Awareness training. Mudra exercises have also been combined with efforts to understand Four Karmas and Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

6. Field trips: Some space awareness work is conducted out-of-doors or in various types of interior environments, such as architectural or natural spaces. Field trips could include artistic performances and in some bases Mudra exercises have been conducted in public spaces.