One day the wonderful and eccentric Buddhist master Nyoshul Khenpo placed a large sheet in my hand, the size of a poster. Translate it, his attendant said to me. The text in hand-writing, large enough to be read at a distance, announced itself to be a mirror, a place where mindfulness is reflected. In those days, 35 years ago, the subtle language of spiritual practice was still new in the West and many meanings often confined to one word. But the meaning was clear, Khenpo Rinpoche’s face, awake and mischievous, was ever ready to mirror its text: Be mindful! Be aware! Be present! The poster was passed around and soon hung on many walls, both in Europe and in the Himalayas.
Being mindful of the present moment gives a sense of freedom, the simplicity of nowness auto-excludes painful memories from the past and worries about the future. This freedom is good and brings in a heightened sense of peace and ability to rest in oneself, by simply being mindful of what happens. Past is gone and future is fantasy. Everything happens now. Now is real. Life is now. And this settling down into the present moment and what it may contain clears the ocean of rubbish. It is a fine way to understand the practice of mindfulness, for now.
Somehow it has also happened that the Buddha’s clear message, be aware and do what’s right, became fossilized into keep to the practice of mindfulness, an act of distancing and duplicating oneself, as if adding a head to the one we already have. Isn’t it the eternal trap of dualistic mind to always observe through its own filter and then interpret and formulate a meaning that fits? Simply being aware turned into a brand, a purchased technique for positioning this mind we are in a teflon-coated non-stick and righteous way, creating a crime-free mental zone for personal and general safety.
Nyoshul Khenpo’s intention, if I may be so blunt, may not have been to create an army of rigidly mindful robots, twice aware of every breath and step. The self-conscious watching of my breath, constantly on the watch like a hawk, and closing down this living moment into a withdrawn simplified focus, may not have been his aim either. Rather, his message was to set mind free. Free through being awareness, mindful of whatever happens and not caught up in anything. In this way, the techniques taught in mindfulness on being attentive of body, sensations, mind and reality, become the setting for being free, placing yourself at the mercy of what simply is.
Instead of just meaning aware of something in the present, tasting the tea, tying your shoelaces, mindfulness also carries the meaning of being mindful of that which frees the present moment, whatever that method may be: awareness of something’s impermanence frees the mind from the belief that it remains forever, and awareness that there is no individual identity to find frees the mind from the self-centered seriousness during an emotion. Using mindfulness as the framework for seeing clearly, lets insight free your mind. Here is Nyoshul Khenpo’s poetry:
There is much more contained in his words. Mindfulness can also mean presence of mind, rather than being absentminded. Holding duality in mind, even the focus on nowness, is a subtle form of absentmindedness. This perspective has made me write a new translation. Instead of just focusing on nowness and being in the present moment, read Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche’s poetry with the attitude that he is speaking from his essence to your essence, the place in which mindfulness means self-existing presence beyond this here being mindful of that there. Emerge from the enclosure of mind-made mindfulness, allow your kind and intelligent essence to shine freely. Khenpo’s advice-in-the-form-of-a-poem is now a reminder of the carefree and playful innocence that was his hallmark, the mirror to remind us of nondual awareness.
Salute to self-existing presence.
See here, friends of the unchanging!
I am Unchanging Presence.
Be present when you see me.
Let unmoved mind look into itself.
I am the mirror of presence
clearly showing you right attention.
Be present, it’s the essence of Dharma.
Be present, it’s the main part of practice.
Be present, it’s the mind’s stronghold.
Be present, it furthers natural, wakeful knowing.
Absentminded, one strays into laziness.
Absentminded, every fault flows forth.
Absentmindedness doesn’t fulfill any purpose.
Absentmindedness is like a heap of crap.
Absentmindedness is to float on lakes of urine.
Absentmindedness is like a heartless corpse.
So please, my friends, be present!
Through the wishes of all sublime teachers, may all friends attain a steady presence!
~ Nyoshul Khen Jamyang Dorje
Photo supplied by the author.
Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang, 1981 & 2016.
A biography of Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche.
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