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.
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.