The Pointing Out Style of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Meditation
Daniel Brown, Ph.D.
The pointing out style is an ancient way of teaching meditation that is firmly grounded in the teacher-student relationship. In the early essence traditions of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, like the Great Seal (phyags chen; Mahamudra) and the Great Perfection (dzogs chen) meditation traditions, students were literally sung into awakening by their teachers using pithy poem-songs called dohas. The Tibetan word, ngo sprod pa means “to point out” or “to introduce.” The teacher offers detailed explanation of the typical meditation experiences, way to practice, and common problems that arise at each stage of meditation practice. The student describes meditation experience in sufficient detail while the teacher carefully monitors the student’s meditation progress. When the student has developed the practice so as to make the mind ‘fit’ the teacher points out the real nature of the mind and the protected practices that enable the student to awaken to the mind’s real nature. Pointing out refers to a style of teaching meditation that is firmly relationally-based.
Later historical developments, namely the rise of the monastic tradition, fundamentally changed how meditation was taught. In large monasteries hundreds or thousands of students sat together. Interviews with teachers were infrequent. A few hundred years after the development of the monastic tradition in Tibet hundreds of books were written on typical problems encountered during meditation with descriptions of where meditators typically got ‘stuck’ in their meditation. In part, the proliferation of difficulties in meditation were a function of the institutionalization of meditation, wherein meditation students were more managed than followed carefully as part of an ongoing teacher-student relationship. Unfortunately, these institutionalized styles of teaching meditation represent many of the instructional methods that have been imported to the West in the past 50 years. As a Western psychologist who conducted outcomes studies on long-term meditators in the West for a decade, I encountered many serious Western meditation students who had failed to progress in their meditation, and who without realizing it were ‘stuck’ at various common sticking points along the path of meditation. Therefore, I decided to revitalize the earlier relational-based pointing out ways of teaching meditation and meld them in a style of teaching that both preserves the heart of the ancient pointing out style and also is easily understandable to modern Western meditation students.
I like to think of the pointing out style of teaching for the student as similar to working with a tour guide. I once engaged a guide to see the recent excavation of the West Wall under the Arab market in old Jeruselum. The tour guide pointed out the underground arches of the Roman bridges, the still intact entrance to the holy Second Temple, the 800 ton corner stone of the second temple along with the chisel marks where Roman soldiers hand tried to destroy it, and the chariot tracks grooved into the original stone path to the temple. Had I walked the path underground alone, I would have seen simply dirt and stone. The relationship with the tour guide help me to really see the arches, entrance way, and chariot tracks that I would otherwise not have seen. What the tour guide pointed out opened up an entire rich world that was now obvious to me. The ancient Indo-Tibetan pointing out style of teaching helps you to see the ‘chariot tracks’ at each step as you walk the path of meditation. The pointing out instructions deepen concentration meditation, enable the student to gain insight into how the mind constructs ordinary experience, and make the mind fit for awakening. Such instructions are remarkably simple, but not at all obvious without the right explanation or introduction. I have spent 40 years trying to take these ancient Indo-Tibetan Buddhist pointing out meditation instructions and put them in a form that works for serious Western meditation students. I had great fortune of having a live model for pointing out instructions in my intensive relationship with my primary teacher, the Venerable Geshe Wangyal (pictured on this page). This relationship spanned a decade during which I lived with summers between college and graduate school years. I am also grateful to the various Tibetan lamas with whom I taught Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreats to Westerners for over 20 years. In m teaching I have struggled with how to be true to the heart of their profound teachings and yet find a form of teaching that works for Westerners.
The retreats we offer are intensive. You will get a complete, detailed set of instructions for every stage of meditation practice in the retreat, hopefully in a form that is easy to implement. All the meditations are guided, and students are followed carefully. Therefore, retreat enrollment numbers are limited. After the initial retreat we offer to follow serious students on a regular basis as part of an on-going relationship. We do not offer silent retreats, because we give live instructions during the meditations to keep you on track, and we emphasize maintaining the realizations off the meditation pillow more than on it.
I have taught these retreats now for around 20 years, and I have trained three other teachers in this pointing out style–Susan Mickel, Gretchen Nelson, and George Protos, all of whom now have considerable experience teaching. My pointing out style of teaching represented in the level 1 retreats derives from the Tilopa/Marpa linegae of Mahamudra. My book, Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition (shown here) describes a traditional pointing out approach to meditation from this lineage. More recently, we have developed level 2 and level 3 retreats, wherein we invite guest teachers to offer unique lineage versions of ancient pointing out instructions, such as Cutting Through and By-Passing Great Completion (dzogs chen) Meditation Instructions with Rahob Tulku, Thupten Kalsang Rinpoche and Karma Kargyu lineage Great Seal (Mahamudra) instructions. The level 2 retreat emphasizes traditional Mahamudra concentration and insight meditation and spontaneous songs of awakening. The level 3 retreat is designed for practitioners who have direct experience of awakened wisdom, who wish to develop this awakened wisdom at all times and all situations using Great Completion (dzogs chen) methods.