Tami Simon: Today I speak with Reggie Ray. Reggie is carrying on the lineage of the great Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche on the faculty of Naropa University since its inception. He is president and spiritual director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation based in Crestone, Colorado. He’s the author of several books, including Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body, as well as the Sounds True audio programs Meditating with the Body and The Buddhist Tantra.
As a personal student of Reggie Ray he and I decided that for this episode of Insights at the Edge I would ask him a series of challenging, difficult questions. So here we go, Hard Questions for a Vajra Master with Reggie Ray.
Tami Simon: This is an unusual Insights at the Edge recording because I am sitting here with the person who is my teacher, my meditation teacher. For the last seven and a half years, Reggie, you and I have worked together, and most of the people that I interview are Sounds True authors that I’ve learned a lot from and who in some way I might consider teachers, but not the same kind of formal relationship that you and I have. And you’ve asked me to ask you hard questions, not just because you’re someone I have a great deal of respect and special relationship with, to throw you underhand softballs, but throw out the hardballs. So here we go.
I spoke to some of my friends about questions and said, “What are some of the hard questions you would ask Reggie,” and I spoke to four people and all four of them led with this question. “Reggie is a self-proclaimed Vajra master,” and perhaps you can explain to our listeners to what a Vajra master is, “but he didn’t receive that empowerment from a living teacher. He claimed it in a way, and isn’t that arrogant and suspect?”
Reggie Ray: Well, first of all I’m part of a lineage, and my teacher was Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, and his story was that he started teaching in ways that the Tibetan tradition didn’t like, and he was stripped of his status and even proclaimed crazy, arrogant, insane, things far worse than people say about me. And he came to realize that he had experience that needed to be shared with other people and that other people could benefit greatly from what he had learned through his practice and through his lifetime of working with Buddhism, and he taught anyway. And so that’s my teacher. And later Tibetan Buddhism, when they saw how successful he was, they came back and acknowledged him, but that was about six years after he had been thrown out of the tradition, literally thrown out.
The other thing is when he taught me in the early seventies—I met him in 1970—he told me and his other early students, “I’m training you to be teachers in the same way that I am, and my expectation is that you will have students some day the way I do and you will teach them as I do.” And that was something a whole generation heard. Later, after he died and before he was able to empower anybody except one person that he had chosen fairly early to teach in that way, the organization that he founded became very very conservative, which often happens in the second generation after a great teacher dies. And to this day, maybe out of 12,000 people there isn’t one single Western person who’s been given permission to present the full lineage the way it’s done in Zen and Theravada and all the other Buddhist traditions. So I was the first one to say my teacher wanted me to share with other people everything that I have and everything that I learned from him. But now there are others, other people of the same generation who are beginning to teach and beginning to share what they know.
Tami Simon: Who are you referring to?
Reggie Ray: These are not people I would name. These are people who are doing things, maybe sometimes under cover, maybe they’re beginning, but they would become targets if I mentioned them. But it is also interesting that in the Buddha’s days same exact story. He achieved a certain level of understanding and he felt, “I need to help people.” That was his motivation. Nobody said you’re enlightened. Nobody gave him permission. He just went and started teaching. And that, in fact, is often how it happens in Buddhism, surprisingly enough. That you don’t get the stamp of the Vatican, so to speak. You teach because you care about other people and you have something to offer, and within the tradition that I’ve been brought up in, which is the Mahayana, which emphasizes compassion, if somebody wants teaching from you and you have the capacity to help them and you don’t for whatever reason—even if the institution has told you that you can’t do it—you’re breaking your vow. You have to teach whatever the personal cost to yourself.
And in my case my personal cost was I was thrown out of the community that I grew up in and that I helped found—grew up in and contributed to for thirty years.
Tami Simon: Don’t you think though that there’s a risk that if somebody is self-proclaimed there aren’t the same checks and balances in the system? There isn’t somebody saying, “Hey let me give you some feedback on x, y, z,” because they sort of birthed themselves.
Reggie Ray: The risks in being a spiritual teacher, whether or not you have people telling you you have permission are huge. And my feeling is, looking at myself and other teachers, including the Tibetan teachers and western teachers is, being a spiritual teacher is inherently narcissistic, meaning that you think what you’re doing is the most important thing in the world, and you think you’re the most important person in the world because of all the adulation you get from people around you. And that’s hugely risky, hugely risky, and how do we work with that? I don’t know. One of the ways is to have a network, and in my case I do have a very wide network of other spiritual teachers mostly in North America with whom I stay in touch. And we talk and question each other. It’s very, very important to me. I wish there were more Tibetan Buddhist western teachers because most of my friends are in Zen and Theravada. They’re not Tibetans because nobody’s empowered, you know by the Tibetan community. No westerners are empowered, or very, very few. So I would like that, but I don’t really have it.
Tami Simon: Now I mentioned this term Vajra master. Can you explain to people what that is?
Reggie Ray: Vajra master is like a roshi in Zen Buddhism; it’s like a thera in Theravada Buddhism. It means a person who is empowered by the lineage, and I don’t accept the fact that I’m self-proclaimed at all. Chogyam Trungpa basically told me when he was alive that eventually I would have to do what I’m doing, so I don’t accept the self-proclaimed thing. But a Vajra master is a person who accepts responsibility for passing on the full lineage of Tibetan Buddhism to other people. And the relationship is a very naked one with students, meaning that often in organized religion a teacher will be on a throne, a teacher will put him or herself above the other people, a teacher will keep his or her personal life private, and allow all of the projections that students have in them to come out, and they don’t challenge the projections often. A Vajra master is a person who doesn’t do that, who is an absolutely stripped-down human being in an intention, and that they share everything they are with their students and they share their experience of life, of reality. And that experience, as we know the more we practice the more raw and naked and awakened and terrifying and joyful it is. And that’s the job of the Vajra master to share that with his or her students and also to help the students grow into that very vast experience of what is.
So there are no particular—it’s not a status situation at all. It’s a human situation, an eye-to-eye situation with one’s students, as you know very well.
Tami Simon: Interesting, when I talk to people and when I introduced you here as my teacher in a kind of formal sense, what I notice is lots of people Sounds True listeners and others recoil in a way. [They seem to ask] “Why is an intelligent woman like Tami giving her authority to somebody else? She must have some kind of oedipal needs from childhood that haven’t been worked out, etc., etc., Could you say as Vajra master he’s actually a guru? What’s going on here?”
Reggie Ray: All of us give our power away to people all over the universe. We give it to our spouses, our bosses, people we look up to. Everybody gives away power, and the job of the Vajra master is to refuse to take your power. Refuse, and turn it back on you. Hold up the mirror. You have the power, and if you try to give it to me I’m going to give it back to you. And I will find ways to do it.
So our notion of a guru is pretty accurate. That is what happens in our culture. They give away their intelligence, their power, and their authority to other people and especially to so-called gurus. But that’s not what we’re doing, and that’s not what this lineage is about. It’s about helping people to cease and desist in that process. Everyone gives away power and that’s the fundamental problem with all of us and that’s why we suffer. So the Vajrayana is all about helping people come into the fullness of human power, what that means.
Tami Simon: Now you do ask your formal students to make a certain kind of commitment. Why?
Reggie Ray: The hardest thing in the world is to come into the person that we are most fundamentally. The hardest thing in the world is to become what we are. Everybody wants to become who we are but very few people are willing to actually do it. It’s a very, very, very challenging journey. And who we are is constantly opening, expanding, and becoming more naked, more vast, more raw, and including a fuller and fuller range of human experience. And we can’t do it ourselves. There’s too much potential for self-deception and trying to hang out in spirituality as a comfort zone, and my experience with Chogyam Trungpa was he was relentless in stripping away my protective barriers. And I realized that I actually needed that. I needed somebody else to work with me. And that’s my role with my students. My sense is if you don’t commit to your own journey and finding out who you are, and make that commitment with another person or with a community, chances are you’re going to quit somewhere along the way. So what I say to my students is once you step into this traditionally fully, you have to see it through. I’m going to commit that I’m going to be with you for life, and I want you to commit to me that you’ll be with me for life. And the nature of that commitment is not particularly that you’re going to be giving me money or being an administrator, or do anything like that, but the commitment is a commitment to openness and nakedness, and we’re both committed to coming out from our hiding places and being together in a totally human way. And that’s the commitment.
Tami Simon: Now, there’s a teacher named A.H. Almaas—that’s his pen name—he’s a Hamid, and I have a great deal of respect for him. In the course of interviewing him for three days I asked him this question about the role of the teacher. And it was the only time during the whole interview that he got fierce. We spent three days together—this was the only moment in nine hours of conversation, and he just looked at me and he said Tami only one in 10,000 people can find their way without a teacher. I thought this was a huge gauntlet to throw down. And I’m wondering what you think about that.
Reggie Ray: I agree with him and I would say maybe not even one in 10,000. I’d say maybe one in a million.
Tami Simon: I can imagine that there is a kind of recoiling from the perspective of the listener of, “Oh great, now I have to sign on with a cult in order to go the whole way. I don’t accept this. This is just cult-speak. This is from teachers who want people to be joiners.”
Reggie Ray: Trungpa Rimpoche once said to me the job of the teacher is to insult the student. Now insulting doesn’t mean being rude or impolite. What it means is the teacher is the one person on the planet that won’t go along with our self-deception. And I would say for every student that comes and studies with me there are ten that go away because that’s not what . . .
Tami Simon: Or maybe more [laughs]
Reggie Ray: [Also laughs] Maybe we’re into the hundreds. And I think the idea that an authentic teacher is trying to just get numbers is ridiculous. I mean, please, somebody study the history of religion. Study the history of spirituality. In every generation there are authentic teachers, and there are in this generation. People have to find an authentic teacher, I grant you that. You can’t just go sign up for anything and think it’s going to work. And probably in our culture for every authentic teacher there are five hundred frauds or charlatans or people who are proclaiming themselves in ways that are not true. So it is a dangerous situation. It’s a trial ground, and we have to be discriminating. But it doesn’t mean that when we find the right person we can just pass that person by. No. When we find the right person we have to go for it.
Tami Simon: The right person—that’s the right person for each individual?
Reggie Ray: Well, yeah, there has to be a karmic connection and a sense of we can work together and a sense of seeing one another, but also an authentic teacher. You can have very strong connections with very messed-up people. So we’re not talking just about whoever you feel like, you like that person, but is this a person who holds a very bright light that can help you.
Tami Simon: Which brings up the second most common question that the four people I surveyed wanted me to ask you, which is, “So is Reggie enlightened, and is he creating enlightened students?”
Reggie Ray: The question is a bogus question. Really.
Tami Simon: It is the question people have. So if lots of people have this question they’re all holding a bogus question.
Reggie Ray: Yeah, well let’s talk about. First of all the concept of enlightenment, it has a false premise, which means that we can set up something, I mean if we have a term, the term has a meaning, a definition. And everybody has a different idea about enlightenment. And you can easily find that out by asking a hundred people what enlightenment is and you get a hundred different answers. So to say is so and so enlightened, it’s meaningless for that reason, that there’s no agreed upon definition.
And the other problem is that enlightenment presupposes that realization is a fixed state that you enter, and it isn’t. All of us have within us the potential for the heights of spiritual realization that have been attained by all the great teachers. We all have that within us. All of us can do that. But it’s not a fixed state. It’s a state that’s in process. We grow as humans and we become vaster and vaster and vaster in terms of our ability to appreciate the beauty and the sacredness and the openness of the world, our ability to love other people.
We could say enlightenment is a state of perfection. Let’s just use that as a possible definition. Have I reached a state of perfection? Have you reached a state of perfection? Has anyone else reached a state of perfection? Perfection is something that all of us actually embody at this moment. All of us do. All people on the planet are in this state of beatitude. The only problem is we don’t see it. We don’t see that the life that we have at this moment is an experience of the universe delivering itself completely and fully without remainder and that the person that we are now and the experience that we have now contains all of the fulfillment that has ever been possible to humans.
So the problem is not that we’re enlightened, but that definition. Our problem is that we don’t really see it. And the process of spirituality is stripping away all of our defenses against reality so that we become completely vulnerable to the person that we are, completely vulnerable to our lives. And when we do that, the more we do it, then the more realization we experience moment by moment by moment.
In my case, I’m on the journey like everybody else. But I will say there’s been a transformation in my own experience of the perfection of the world and the beauty and perfection in my own life that was unimaginable to me when I was younger. And I think that’s as far as I’ll go. Do I still have things to work on? Absolutely. And one of the things that the Buddhist tradition says is when you reach the end of the road; when there’s nothing more to see; when you live in that state of beatitude, in that moment you die. Because there’s no reason to live. The idea that there are people walking around in some kind of perfect state doesn’t make any sense, at least within the Buddhist tradition.
Tami Simon: But, and your answer was very beautiful. But I’m still wondering if there’s a slight dodge in it, a little bit. Don’t you think, Reggie, that you could say that there are certain thresholds that people pass thorough that we could call a level of enlightenment?
Reggie Ray: I don’t like the term enlightenment. You know enlightenment is not a Buddhist term. There’s no term in Buddhism that corresponds to it. It was invented by perfectionists who lived in the 18th century in the West. It doesn’t have any analog. What do you mean by enlightenment? Maybe we should go there.
Tami Simon: It’s not a term I’m comfortable with, either. I’m not comfortable with it for the reason that you say, because there are so many different meanings. Let’s try this: A state where self-identification does not arise.
Reggie Ray: That would be a horrible, horrible state to be in for a human being. It would be terrible. It would be pernicious. It would be damaging. It would be hurtful. We could talk about nonduality. And there are many people that walk around and claim that they’ve experienced or dwell in a state of nonduality in a kind of permanent way. But the interesting thing is there are many different kinds of experiences of nonduality. There’s the experience of nonduality where the mind is still and there’s not much happening. That’s small. And there are experiences that are medium. And then there are experiences of nonduality that are quite vast, and I’m sitting here and experiencing openness and the mind being completely empty. And then there are experiences of nonduality where the reference point of human experience disappears altogether and that final state, nobody can live in. That’s not something humans do. When you get to that point you’re long since not incarnating as a human. This is Buddhist tradition.
So the idea of being in that state as a human—you can say what’s wrong with that, because I’m saying that’s really problematic that the self-reference point disappears. A person who experiences nonduality and has unresolved trauma in their life—which is true of all humans, all of us have unresolved trauma–the extent to which you have unresolved trauma, that’s how limited your experience of nonduality is going to be. The only way you can actually extend and expand your experience of nonduality is by working with trauma. And what trauma is, from a Buddhist point of view, is that your self identification from two, or four, or five, comes to the surface and you experience yourself as separate from your world. And you live with that, and by living with it and experiencing that and not withdrawing from the sense of separation, you resolve that trauma and your awareness becomes that much bigger. So the whole path is, if you’ve figured out a way to not experience self-identification and separation from your world, you are in deep trouble because you’re not growing anymore, if that makes sense.
Tami Simon: But if the spiritual journey is one of resolving those traumas, facing them, having them come up, releasing them, is there not a point where all of our trauma is resolved?
Reggie Ray: It’s a theoretical endpoint. It’s a receding horizon. You’re dead. You die.
Tami Simon: So in this view, there’s no living human who could be fully enlightened, meaning all of their unconscious trauma has been resolved and released and liberated.
Reggie Ray: Yeah, Obviously. We have to resolve every moment of our life that is not spent experiencing our lives fully, without pulling back, is creating more traumatic response. And the ego itself is a traumatic response, and every layer of ego, every moment since we, probably, were conceived we’ve been building trauma. And in my case, I’ve known really quite well Chogyam Trungpa and other Tibetan teachers at the top of the pile in terms of realization and they have basically said the more realized they are the more they say, “I’m just a human and I’m just working on myself, and I’m on the journey.” And one thing Chogyam Trungpa said that deeply impressed me, he said, “Don’t ever trust anybody that tells you they’re enlightened.” And the reason not to trust them is that there’s a lot of self-deception but [also] they won’t help you. Because they’re setting a goal up that’s going to stall you and impede your path by supposing that they’re beyond the journey and they’re beyond digging deeper and deeper and deeper. In Buddhism we have this notion of the unconscious, and it includes not only our human life, but our lives as animals and going all the way back to the beginning of life itself. And all of that is a traumatic structure, and layer by layer by layer we have to resolve it.
Tami Simon: What do you mean all of that is a traumatic structure?
Reggie Ray: Meaning that we have go back not even and resolve all of our trauma in this life, but all the traumas, all the pulling back, all the separations that have occurred all the way back through the animal kingdom. In other words, the unconscious in Buddhism is almost limitless, and all of that has to be made conscious. And the notion that any person walking around has done that, in my opinion, is ridiculous.
Tami Simon: And then there’s the question, how are your students doing?
Reggie Ray: What do you think?
Tami Simon: I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask, Reggie, I’m asking you.
Reggie Ray: Well, it’s hard,
Tami Simon: I’d say it’s a mixed bag, if you want my opinion.
Reggie Ray: I think those who practice have grown hugely, and I would include you in that number. I’ve seen many of my students changed, become different people. And often I feel incredibly honored that I get to witness the unfolding of these people. There are a lot of people in our community that for one reason or another don’t practice very much and the fruits are coming much more slowly. And there are some people who are suffering very greatly and have come because they’re welcomed and they’re loved. And the transformation there is, maybe there won’t be that much in that life.
Any community like ours, like Dharma Ocean, holds the full range of human possibility, potential. But the ones that are digging in, I feel happy that they’re getting it and I don’t feel like I have to hold back at all.
Tami Simon: One of the questions that I heard from a couple of my friends here, people who are not your students, who said, “I like Reggie, I like what he’s teaching, there’s a lot there, but I’m really not interested in the Tibetan Buddhist forms. I just don’t relate to them. And I’m concerned that if I studied more closely with Reggie this would be a barrier. How could I do it? I mean I’m not going to work with various deity formations and Tibetan Buddhist liturgy, so forget it; I’m going to go someplace else.” And the question to you is, where do you see the tradition evolving, given that a lot of people do have that response to Tibetan Buddhist forms?
Reggie Ray: Well, as you know there are two aspects to Tibetan Buddhism. One of them is very symbolic, very ritualistic and involves a lot of visualization and a lot of long liturgies, but the other one is—and that’s the deity practice that people are referring to—but the other one, which is called maha mudra, which means “the great awakening,” or Dzogchen, which means complete perfection. These are two, what I would say, formless traditions. Those to me are similar to Zen, but have a Vajrayana edge, meaning there’s much more intimate interest in relative reality and in digging into it and unveiling it. These are formless traditions, and I feel these parts of Tibetan Buddhism are the ones that are most appropriate for the West, and the ones that I’m now and in the future going to emphasize. I’m kind of with people that the ornate, baroque aspect of Tibetan Buddhism may not be all that helpful for modern people. I agree with that.
Tami Simon: How do you separate out what parts of Tibetan Buddhism are culturally based and which parts are more the essence of the tradition that need to be preserved, going into the future. How do you parse that out?
Reggie Ray: Well, Chogyam Trungpa, my teacher basically said let’s jettison all of the cultural forms of the tradition that are not really inherent in Buddhism such as the patriarchal nature of the tradition, the extreme emphasis on hierarchy, bowing down to the lamas as higher people, going to the lama and letting the lama tell you how to live your life. All of these things that are very much part of the cultural tradition, he, himself, jettisoned. So I didn’t inherit that. What I inherited was the actual Vajrayana practices, which interestingly enough don’t really come from Tibet. They come from India. And they were taken to Tibet and developed, but the fundamental forms were already present in India. So, I think what I’m doing now is not separating out the cultural part, because he did that, but what I’m looking at is this inheritance, the forms, the ritualism, and symbolism and the formless practice, what in there is really going to help Western people. And I’m going more for the formless practices that are sometimes enhanced by the ritual practices but not necessary.
Tami Simon: Okay.
Reggie Ray: Which, in a way, makes what I’m doing seem so very different from what goes for Tibetan Buddhism now, because most, if not all, of the Tibetan teachers—all of whom are Tibetan—are really presenting the tradition as it was practiced in Tibet. So people see what I’m doing and they look at that, and it seems like a big gulf. But if you look at Chogyam Trungpa it’s not really a big gulf. It’s a further extension of what he wanted to do.
Tami Simon: Is there a way to summarize what you think the essence of the tradition is? Meaning the essence of this formless tradition that you’re wanting to continue and evolve?
Reggie Ray: I would say that within every human person there is already a level of their state of being that’s free. We talk about freedom and people think about spiritual freedom, and everybody wants to be free. But within our mind, underneath the debris of our conditioning, that freedom is already there. And the purpose of meditation and Tibetan Buddhism is to put us in touch with that freedom so that whatever is going on in our lives—whether we’re in prison or whether we’re the richest person in the world—that freedom is already present and there’s no sense of having to look for it. When you experience your own personal freedom and you experience the state of being that is truly without impediment and boundaries and limits then you can come back and live your life in a very different way. You’re no longer looking at your conditioned life to try to find the answers, but your conditioned life becomes an expression of your freedom. And that expression is joy.
So it’s very human and it’s very simple. Again, when we tap into that freedom then we are awake. There is a part of us that is already awake and when we look back at our life from that free, open, awake place we see the perfection of our life and the beauty of everything that goes on with us and with others. And out of that comes love for other people. It’s natural and spontaneous. So I think that’s the purpose. Initially, learning how to live in the freedom, feeling the joy of life and being able to share that with other people. It’s very human and it’s very simple.
Tami Simon: You mentioned, Reggie, that if somebody had worked out all the unconscious trauma going all the way back to algae or bugs—quite a lot—they would be dead.
Reggie Ray: Well, there would be no reason to live, they would just die.
Tami Simon: So my question is about what happens to the rest of us when we die. What is your view of that.
Reggie Ray: I think that the less religious traditions say about that the better. The reason being is nobody actually knows. I think religions in general and organized religions do it more than anybody. When religions set up expectations about what death is going to be like and what happens, it’s a huge disservice. And the second disservice is when they set up expectations about what life is like and what we’re going to experience and what we should experience, it’s a huge disservice, because the whole point of human experience is it’s open and it’s unpredictable and I’m quite certain when I die—when I live I find constant surprise in my life and it’s half expectation, it’s half incredible curiosity and there’s a lot of sense of uncertainty and openness and the wonderful fear of meeting your life when you don’t know what it’s going to be—but I feel that when I die that’s going to be the biggest surprise of all and I look forward to it. And I’m quite certain that all of the things that all of the religions say are going to turn out to be bogus.
But one thing I do feel is that we are on a journey and that we came from somewhere and we’re going somewhere. But that journey is not determined. It’s open ended, and nobody knows anything about it. Nobody actually knows anything about our life. Nobody can tell us what it’s going to be like moment to moment and if we think somebody can tell us, then we have turned off most of what we are and we’ve lost touch with the total openness and uncertainty and excitement of being alive. So religions when they provide answers they’re not helpful. When they teach us that there are no answers and there are ways to find out and experience and discover our lives, then they’re being helpful. Buddhism at its best gives us the methods and the practice to really open up the intense and limitless mystery of our own life moment by moment.
Tami Simon: Now in your own life, Reggie, I’ve heard you talk about contact you’ve had with Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche after his death, etc., and how do you understand that continuity of consciousness, you’re contacting or in dialogue with who, what, what stream of energy? How do you understand that?
Reggie Ray: Maybe the analogy of shamanic journeying can be helpful. Meaning that people are able to, by relaxing and letting their awareness descend beneath the surface of consciousness they’re able to contact what they call the lower world. And they’re able to have contact with beings who are wise beyond the people who are here.
Tami Simon: Some people would say that’s imagination.
Reggie Ray: Well, I don’t think we know what it is. I wouldn’t say it’s objectively real, and I wouldn’t say it’s imagination, but we do know that when we descend beneath the chatter of our conscious mind there’s a wisdom that becomes available. We know this and people experience it in all kinds of different ways, through dreams, shamanic journeying, religious visions, and I prefer not to come to any conclusions about what it is except it’s incredibly helpful to those people who have that kind of openness and that kind of experience. And it gives them another and a deeper reference point. Now is Chogyam Trungpa really there when I see him? I don’t know. I mean is it simply reality that is taking that form to communicate something to me because he was my teacher. I don’t really know, and I think the less we know, the better. The fewer conclusions we come to about the whole realm of spirituality the better because we’re going to be more open and make a lot more discoveries. Everybody’s trying to pin everything down, but that’s not helpful. I don’t think so. It’s like the enlightenment thing, let’s pin it down. It’s not helpful.
Tami Simon: I want to pin down the spooks.
Reggie Ray: You want to, but the thing is about spooks is you can’t do that. The think about Chogyam Trungpa even in life, he was a spook even in life. Meaning that he’s sitting in a chair, and you go up to him and all of a sudden you get hit over the back of the head, because he’s not in the chair, he’s behind you. And I think in general that’s how spiritual experience works. The minute you think you’ve got it, you don’t’ have it. You’ve lost it and it’s going to come in from some other angle.
Tami Simon: Okay, you did give me permission to ask the hard questions, so I’m going to keep going here. I’m not trying to pin it down, but I’m curious in the last couple years if you’ve had personal experiences of dialogue or contact with Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche and what the import of those experiences has been.
Reggie Ray: I have through dreams and through putting my mind in that shamanic space and also through the world, because I often have a sense that things that happen are him—things that happen in my life that may not have an image attached to them. Now what are they? I’ll just give you one example. I had a dream a while back that there was a big table and the Buddhist community, my community, was sitting around it and my peers, the other teachers were sitting there. And I got up to go to the bathroom and when I came back my place was gone. And I thought, “I’m excluded.” And this was before I left the community that I’ve been part of. And I turned around and Chogyam Trungpa was looking at me and his face was wild and his eyes were blazing, and there was as sense of absolute and utter joy in his face that I’d lost my place in the community, and what I understood from that was that’s how I’m going to enter into his mind and become awake like he was awake. It’s going to be that way by losing my status, which happened; losing my credentials, which happened; having 15,000 people hate me because I was no longer one of their main teachers. That, that was the path for me, and when it happened I thought back to that dream and I thought, “Thank you,” that’s very helpful. “I needed that.”
And it’s the kind of things like that, helping me chart my own course and saying yes, when I’m going in the right direction and no when I’m not. That’s the way he was in life and he’s still that way for me.
Tami Simon: So you recently came back from twenty-eight days in a dark retreat, and I haven’t really heard much about it, but first of all why don’t you tell people what a dark retreat is.
Reggie Ray: It’s a retreat that you do after you’ve been meditating a lot because you need a lot of stability, psychological and meditative stability to do it. And you go into total darkness for periods of time—for a week; a month is a long time to be in total darkness. And somebody brings you your food, slips it in and you have your meals; other than that there’s nothing to do. There’s no practice. In the type of retreat that I did, all you do is you sit and you look into the darkness and you see what comes up. And what it does is, in my experience, is that it removes much of the barrier between the unconscious and the conscious mind. There’s always a pressure in the unconscious. C.G. Jung, the great psychologist said the nature of the unconscious is it wants to be conscious. There’s a pressure, and to maintain our egos we’re always sort of pushing things down. And what happens in a dark retreat is you’re not doing that anymore. And things begin to come up from the depths. And that’s the practice, simple relating to what comes up from the depths, from the darkness. And sometimes it comes from very, very deep places and sometimes it doesn’t.
Tami Simon: Can you share with us what happened in these twenty-eight days or some sense of it?
Reggie Ray: In meditation practice in general we alternate between experiencing a tremendous peace and openness and then there’s an upsurge of material to work with. That’s the nature of—at least in our tradition—that’s the nature of meditation.
Tami Simon: It’s not always the way meditation is billed or sold to people–the upsurge component of unconscious material.
Reggie Ray: Yes, I mean, the geyser of black mud is essential to the meditative journey. If you have gotten into a state of mind where you don’t’ have that then, you’re not going to grow anymore. So within the Vajrayana tradition, we love the peace, we love the openness, we love the experience of expansiveness, but when we get really turned on is when the black geyser of mud comes up and we have material to work with, and we have experience to resolve, trauma to resolve. And in the dark retreat that cycle of tremendous openness and peace and stillness and emptiness and then the eruption of unresolved trauma is the nature of the practice. And you do that day in day out for twenty-eight days. And night in and night out, I might add, because your sleeping thing is very disrupted.
Now I’ll tell you it’s a very difficult situation to be in because you’re pushed to your limit and then you are pushed beyond your limit, and most of us are not really that easy with being pushed beyond our limit. I went into a couple of states that represent trauma from the age of two. And it’s not like I saw the trauma and I was watching it, I became it. I became the two-year-old who had been basically ejected from my family. I was the two-year-old and I experienced what that two-year-old was not able to experience at the age of two. And just simply pulled back and shut down. And it was horrifying, and one of the episodes lasted for twenty hours. And during that time—of course I knew what was going on and I stayed with it—but during that time I had two thoughts. One was the gates of hell are open, and that kept going through my mind, “This is what hell is like. This is hell.” And number two, “I’m fighting for my life. Am I going to go insane? Is this going to simply sweep me away?” But the thing is I had the practice and I stayed with it. And strangely enough, it’s not a technique; it’s opening, opening, opening, opening. And whatever fear comes up you let it go and you open, and you let yourself go through it, and last year—same thing happened last year, different traumas—I felt, when I got on the other side of it, that something fundamental in my state of being had been resolved. And truthfully, I’ve done a lot of practice as you know, many many years of solitary retreat, and this is different. And I felt things were resolved in this situation that I’ve never really been able to get at. So it’s very powerful and very, very interesting, but it’s extraordinarily challenging for anybody.
Tami Simon: How would one know it they were ready to go on a dark retreat?
Reggie Ray: You’d have to work with a teacher who’s done it. You’d have to meet somebody, talk with them, share your practice. You have to be very stable psychologically. You have to be able to handle a tremendous amount of psychological pain. You have to be able to be with it and not freak. And that takes a lot, and it takes a lot of practice and a lot of psychological work. And you also need to know how to rest your mind in emptiness. You need to be able to do it so you have some place to go to create a bigger space for yourself to experience what you’re going through.
Tami Simon: Now one of the comments I heard from this small group that I surveyed was, “Interesting that you’re going to be talking to Reggie in a program called ‘Insights at the Edge,’ because he’s the edge man, he always wants to be on the edge. He’s going back into dark retreat, he’s addicted to the edge, he’s attached to the edge, some sense of insufficiency that’s driving him that he always wants to be on the edge.” What do you think about that?
Reggie Ray: I heard a program recently, which I found very intriguing about people who—it’s just who they are—they love risk, and somehow that’s how they express their humanity. And it’s apparently like 10 percent of the population has this in them. It’s just who they are. Some people love lying on beaches and soaking up the sun, that’s their idea of the fullness of their life. And other people are explorers and adventurers. What it is in me, I think, is an appetite to find out what’s next and what’s over the horizon. And I’ve always had it, and I had it when I was even a small boy. There was a big, dark wood behind us, and I wanted to know what’s in the wood, and what’s in the other side of the wood. And I would take off at the age of six and just disappear.
I think it’s genetic, and I think it’s part of the human community that there are certain people who do that. And the thing is, they get killed at a much higher rate than other people—you know, hunters and gatherers, all the way down. They’re the ones who take the chances. They’re the ones that just have it in them. It’s part of who they are. So, as with most things in human life that we pathologize. Most unusual things in life we have some comment about how it’s neurotic or how it’s driven by some unfulfilled need. To me that’s ridiculous. Why don’t we take the point of view that every person who’s born has an expression of humanity that isn’t insufficient, and all the diversity we have in life—why don’t we take the point of view that that’s all interesting and it all has functions, and it’s not fundamentally neurotic. Maybe there are ways in which we misuse it and in whatever our gifts or proclivities are, but I don’t’ really go for that. When we pathologize all these different behaviors and people, I don’t think that’s very interesting.
Tami Simon: You’re just edgy by nature?
Reggie Ray: I enjoy the unknown, I enjoy the darkness. I enjoy meeting it. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but I’m called to it, And my friends are called to it. I mean the people I work with, most of that have that similar curiosity about what is beyond my current world. What is beyond my current set up? What is beyond my ego? What’s out there? Let’s find out, I’m curious. As you know one of the analogies I love most is that human life is like a voyage on a sailing ship and that most of us spend most of our lives sailing around the harbor and stopping at known points of reference. But there are some of us who look out and we see the opening into the open ocean. And we see oceans that have never been sailed in and the only thing that we want to do is get out of the harbor and set sail and see sights that have never been seen and visit places that have never been visited. So, you know, that’s me.
Tami Simon: Well, that makes you a perfect guest for Insights at the Edge, Reggie. Thank you.
Reggie Ray: Thank you.