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Sandra Pawula

Profound Encounters with the Essence of Mind

If you like intrigue, adventure, and an enticing spiritual quest, chances are you will be captivated by In the Shadow of the Buddha, Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet by Matteo Pistono.

For more than a decade, Pistono skillfully eluded Chinese security forces while gathering heart-wrenching accounts of torture and atrocities regularly and repeatedly committed by the Chinese government in Tibet.  However, Pistono didn’t set out to be an espionage agent, nor did he train as the protégé of James Bond.

He journeyed to Tibet in 1999 on a pilgrimage following in the footsteps of an unconventional nineteenth-century Tibetan mystic named Tertön Sogyal.  Pistono's spiritual odyssey involved numerous trips to Tibet and, in total, it stretched over a 10-year period of time.

Even before his travels to Tibet, Pistono was actively pursuing the practice of meditation in order to bridge the great divide he felt between his frenzied political work and the serenity he found on the meditation cushion. He wanted an effective means for addressing the turbulent emotions that engulfed him as he sparred with his political adversaries. 

In Tibet, he meditated in cliff-side grottoes, remote sanctuaries, damp caves, and the assembly halls of great monasteries, continually deepening his understanding of meditation and the power it has transform one's mind and heart.

One of the unique gifts of this book is the way Pisotono shines a bright light on the ultimate goal of meditation, which is:  to awaken in us the sky-like nature of mind.  He shares glimpses of his own meditation retreats and the powerful experience of being introduced to the essence of your mind by an authentic teacher.

There's More to Meditation Than Remaining in the Present Moment

These days, every Tom, Dick, and Harry writes about meditation on their blog.  Their intentions are good, but do know what meditation really is?  They might give you a few helpful tips, but are they really leading you in the right direction?

Mindfulness is the first practice of meditation on the spiritual path.  It is extremely important.  Without a good basis in mindfulness, you won't get very far when you explore higher forms of meditation.

But mindfulness is not the ultimate goal of meditation.  In fact, without proper instruction, there's a danger of getting stuck in the method of mindfulness or in subtle grasping onto the present moment.

There's more to meditation than remaining in the present moment.  The true purpose of meditation is to awaken the sky-like nature of mind.  And you can be directly introduced to the very essence of mind by an authentic spiritual teacher.

In the following passage, Pistono elegantly describes a powerful moment of introduction to the nature of his own mind, which took place in the middle of a public talk in London given by the prominent meditation master Sogyal Rinpoche.

"Halfway through the talk, Sogyal Rinpoche taught us how to turn inward to see the essence of our minds, our enlightened nature - to arrive at a natural recognition, in the way a child recognizes his or her mother in a crowd.  As I watched him move his own hands slowly downward to rest on his knees, and as I turned my mind inward according to his instructions, it was as if dark drapes were pulled away from the gateway of my awareness, and clarity dawned from within.  There was no flash of lights, no visions.  There were no booming voices, rapture, or levitation.  It was exceedingly uncomplicated, while, at the same time, extraordinarily profound.  I merely remained in the vivid and visceral awareness of the ever-changing present moment, as if all my senses and the world itself had been stripped naked.  It was unlike anything I had every experienced, and seemed, if only for a moment, a glimpse of freedom from distraction."

Crystal Clear Awareness

In the Winter of 1999, Pistono visited the Larung Buddhist Encampment in Eastern Tibet.  He traveled for 4 days in a cigarette-smoke filled bus crossing two sixteen-thousand foot icy passes.  At one point, the driver nearly rolled the bus into a steep ravine.  Another half hour trek brought him into the valley and finally into the encampment, which was comprised of thousands of mud walled huts.

During the week he waited for a private interview with the renowned Buddhist master, Khenpo Jigmé Phuntsok, he attended teachings huddled together with thousands of monks in the open-air assembly hall of the temple.  Then finally the special moment arrived.

"We spoke for a half an hour, then Khenpo became suddenly still, arresting all sound and movement around us.  His eyes widened, unblinking and unmoving.  And then, just as when a cloud dissolves effortlessly in the sky, there was an expansive spaciousness, free of tension, free of thinking.  Looking into his eyes, I felt Khenpo's thought-free awareness being poured into me.  Only crystal-clear awareness remained.  I was looking into the face of awareness itself, where the looker, the looking, and that which is being looked at dissolve of their own accord.  Time did not stand still - there was no time; there was nothing before or after, only freedom."

Now you might think, "That's it." But, for most of us, the introduction to the nature of mind - which may be just a brief but unmistakable glimpse - is simply the beginning of meditation practice at the highest level.  The meditator's task after the introduction is to gradually learn to abide continually in this unchanging pure awareness.  To accumulate "glimpse, after glimpse, after glimpse" of the innermost essence of mind.  It doesn't happen over night.  Determination, patience, and diligence are required.

You Don't Have to Travel to Tibet

The good news is that you don't have to travel to Tibet to be introduced to the nature of mind.  There are many authentic teachers now in the West and you can meet some of them right here on this blog.  When the blessing of an authentic master, the devotion of an authentic student, and the authentic lineage and method of introduction come together, there's no stopping a profound meeting of minds and hearts.

If you have yet to meet such a teacher, don't worry.  The first step is finding and following an authentic spiritual path beginning with the fundamentals like basic meditation.  Through following the truth of the teachings you will - in time - discover a connection with your own teacher.

Please don't let this vignette give you the impression that all is well in Tibet.  As Pistono's book describes, torture and atrocities are common in Chinese occupied Tibet.  The Larung Gar Encampment has not escaped ongoing demolition efforts conducted by the Chinese throughout Tibet.

In the Footsteps of the Buddha interweaves three distinct but interconnected stories:

  • Pistono’s undercover human rights activities within Tibet and his close encounters with Chinese security forces.
  • The life history of the great mystic and political advisor to the XIII Dalai Lama, Tertön Sogyal.
  • Pistono’s own spiritual odyssey and understanding of meditation in the most profound sense of the word.

It is a story of courage, conviction, and compassion that you won’t want to put down for a moment.