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Master Teacher: David Nichtern

In a 2013 YouTube video on taming self-aggression, David Nichtern describes a New York moment in which he was driving “like an asshole.” This type of admission is typical of his ability to present the depth of the Buddhist tradition with a light touch, making it accessible and relevant. Nichtern is a senior meditation teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. He has been the Director of Karme Choling Meditation Center in Vermont and Director of Expansion for Shambhala Training International.

An Emmy winning composer, guitarist and producer, he wrote the classic song Midnight at the Oasis and has worked with a diverse range of artists including Maria Muldaur, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Jerry Garcia, and others. His book “Awakening From The Daydream: Reimagining The Buddha's Wheel of Life” was released last October.

Devoted student Dr. Jude Theriot said, “I’ve been Skyping with David once a month for almost three years now, and while we’ve changed course many times along the way, keeping pace with changing interests and life circumstances, the overall trajectory has been in the direction of a steady deepening of my practice. As a medical doctor, I often find myself in emotionally challenging situations, and I’m grateful for David’s constant presence in my life, his encouragement and support.”

Kathleen Kraft: What does your practice look like every day?

David Nichtern: Because I have a very creative lifestyle and travel and teach extensively around the world, I actually do not have a regulated daily schedule for practice, even though I highly recommend that approach to my students!

So here’s what my personal practice looks like: I am currently working on a particular Shambhala meditation practice which is part of a much longer curriculum I’ve been working on for many years. This practice requires 150-175 sessions per year. Each session takes 1 – 1.5 hours.

In addition, I am leading workshops most weekends and many evenings as well. During these workshops there can be anywhere from ½ hour to 3 hours of practice integrated so I think that would account for at least another 50-75 sessions of mostly mindfulness style meditation. I also regularly do short sessions of mindfulness style meditation. Finally, there are practices that we do such as tonglen and awareness practices that are completely integrated into everyday life, including mealtimes, working, and even sleeping.

I also actively practice Taiji and qigong, probably 3-4 times per week as I can schedule it in – more some weeks, maybe less when I am traveling. This is a fantastic practice – probably in another life it would be my main practice.

KK: What are the most important qualities of the student/teacher relationship?

DN: In my tradition (Buddhism), we encourage the students to be intelligent and discerning. Students should feel free to ask any questions about the practice and study that are relevant for them. For me, teaching is a very open ended relationship. Respect is important but has to be earned and there is no element of blind faith or simple minded devotion. In Buddhism the teacher is not on a rescue mission and the student does not need to be “saved”. There is a role for devotion and respect, but these must be earned.

Buddhism is a non-theistic discipline. Nothing is taken for granted, so there is a wonderful play in the teacher student relationship. There can be sympathy, kindness, appreciation, love and support but there is also a sense of edge and sharpness. At more advanced levels a certain depth of confidence in the relationship can evolve, but if we leap into that kind of devotion too quickly it can be dangerous for both the teacher and the student. In modern terms we would say the relationship should not become co-dependent or symbiotic.

KK: Which sutra is guiding you and why?

DN: Well if we’re talking about sutras, I would say the heart sutra (prajnaparamita) is extremely seminal and important for me. Emptiness is probably the most widely misunderstood concept in Buddhism. Another translation of emptiness would be vastness, potentiality, great expanse, rather than a nihilistic void. In Buddhism we do emphasize what things are not sometimes, because it is essentially a “de-constructive” discipline in which we dismantle our projections, expectations, and delusions, rather than building up another layer of wishful thinking. The heart sutra is extremely powerful in this regard.

For me, the Shambhala teachings brought forward by my teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche are probably of equal if not even greater importance. Bringing the dharma into the arena of everyday life and society, restoring confidence and dignity to individuals and our social and political institutions seems like a very important focal point for us dharma students these days.

KK: Who has been a major influence on your life, your work?

DN: In the dharma world Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his son Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche have been my major teachers and lineage, surrounded by some of the great Tibetan masters of the last and present century, including

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Karmapa XVI, and some of the other wonderful next generation teachers like Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.

I have also been studying with Taoist Qigong/Taiji Master Sifu Sat Hon, who has had a tremendous influence on my practice and approach to living. If I weren’t a Buddhist I would definitely be a Taoist and as it as I’m probably some of both.

Learn more about David and his offerings by clicking here.

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