Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today I speak with Lama Surya Das. Lama Surya Das is one of the best-known American-born lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He’s the author of the books Awakening the Buddha Within and The Mind Is Mightier than the Sword. With Sounds True, he’s created seven programs, including the audio learning programs Tibetan Dream Yoga and Buddha Is As Buddha Does , as well as a book/CD package called Natural Radiance: Awakening to Your Great Perfection. In this episode, Lama Surya Das and I spoke about recognizing our buddha nature, and waking up to the nature of mind. He also leads us in a Tibetan dream yoga practice. Here’s my conversation with Lama Surya Das.
Good to be speaking with Lama Surya Das. You know, LSD, that— LSD, that’s our nickname here for you at Sounds True! Not everybody gets to be called by their initials, but in your case it just happened naturally.
OK, so I want to start, LSD, by talking about something that you call in your book natural radiance. The pith instructions, that there are a series of teachings called pith instructions. Explain to us what that means, pith instructions.
Lama Surya Das: Well, it’s not something I made up. The tradition in Tibetan Buddhism has these oral pith instructions, or pithy, personal, condensed, essential instructions, kind of shortcuts, tips and pointers, oral instructions, often pithy, concise, that have been passed down by the masters to their students, disciples, and friends, and they’re called pith instructions. Menok in Tibetan, upadesha if you read Sanskrit. In Trungpa Rinpoche’s books, they’re often called upadesha, oral pith instructions. So they’re often like the cream of the cream; they’re the butter extracted from the milk, they’re the essence of the essence, in terms of the voluminous amounts of wisdom teachings taught by Buddha, not to mention by the many sages of the our world.
TS: It seems like pith instructions would be something that would be popular here in our time in the West. You know, people like it served up fast, quick, concentrated.
LSD: That’s why they’re come much into vogue in modern times. They’re part of what in Tibetan we call the vajra shortcut. In other words, getting right to the point. Like when somebody holds your hand and points you along the way, leads you along the way, rather than you have to study it, get the maps, and explore it for yourself. So in this way, it’s very personal, it’s very intimate, what my own teacher, Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche used to call naked teachings.
TS: Can you share with us a couple of pith instructions that you use that are personally meaningful to you?
LSD: Well, there are many. One of my favorite ones is “Let go, let be.” Many people think letting go means pushing things away, but it means letting things come and go, letting be as it is. “As it is” is actually one of the shortest and greatest pith instructions. It implies, leave it as it is, just as it is, the rightness of things as they are; acceptance and delight, appreciation for things as they are.
Another one of my favorite ones he might say is that “It is all within.” I think this comes down from Padampa Sangye, the Buddha of Tingri who came from India. But “It is all within,” and that points directly to the essence of what we seek and are, whatever we call it; by whatever name, it’s still as sweet. “It is all within.”
Another one that I really like, and now I’m just translating from the Tibetan Dzogchen pith instruction, is that “We’re all buddhas by nature.” We only have to awaken to that fact.
TS: Now, tell me what that means, “We’re all buddhas by nature.”
LSD: This introduces us to the divine or the light, the natural radiance, the spirit within us all, that we all have an uncorruptible, primordially perfect and complete spiritual nature. That we are not Buddhists—God forbid, Tami!—but buddhas by nature. Not sectarian, Asian buddhas, but like gods and goddesses, that we each are a complete, English-talking child of God, that we each have this spark of divinity within us, that the light is within each of us and all of us. That’s what I mean by natural radiance, the title of this book, awakening to your own innate, great perfection.
And therefore the only task of awakening, really, or self-realization, is to realize this grandeur or kingdom that’s within us. Kingdom, queendom, whatever we call it; by any name, it’s still as sweet. And to recognize it in ourselves is to recognize it in all, and thus make it possible to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated. So this is the secret, not just of the view or the bigger picture or the outlook, but the meditation, the way we contemplate and seek and reflect upon things and get used to them, and the conduct, the activity of treating others in a beautiful and loving way.
“View, meditation, and action” is another pith instruction of our tradition. That meditation is not enough, that belief or philosophy is not enough, and action itself is not enough, because it really depends on our intention and motivation and the clarity with which it’s carried out. So we talk about view, meditation, and action together as an inseparable trinity of doing and being and actualizing in the world together, for the betterment of all.
TS: OK, so let’s just slow down here for a moment, LSD. So, view, meditation, and action: what is the view?
LSD: The view is to see things just as they are. The meditation is getting used to that, that view, that bigger picture, that allowing, the wisdom of allowing, to see through things even as we see them, like to have second sight, as it were; to open our third eye, as it were; to see things as they are in depth-perception and distinction, but also with the third eye of unity, to see through them, to recognize their inseparable coherence or fittingness in the hologram of being, in the totality of being. That’s the view. And from that comes the meditation of leaving it as it is, being able to accept things as they are. From which we can then choose more objectively how, if, and when to respond, which leads us to the action or the buddha activity, selfless, beneficial, compassionate activity, in service of the higher good for the greatest number. Not just reactive karmic activity, but proactive, liberating buddha activity. That’s the view, meditation, and action in a nutshell.
Another pith instruction I’d like to mention, Tami, because it’s one of my favorites and I use it all the time. In fact I mentioned it this weekend in Vermont in the discussion about the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, is when the great master of Tibet, Padmasambhava, said, “My view is as high, as vast, as inclusive as the whole sky, yet my actions regarding cause and effect”—in other words, regarding karma, my actions—“are as meticulous as finely ground flour.” So in this way, I think it helps us to again recognize balance between doing and being, the yin and yang, the two poles of our life, alone and with others, doing and being. And how to have a big, open mind and open heart, but also be warm and connected and empathic and fully engaged in a meaningful way with others and with the world.
TS: This idea, LSD, that we all are buddhas already, but we have to uncover this: how do you know this is true? I mean, clearly it’s something that tradition says, but what in your own experience has allowed you to know this? I mean, obviously it’s not a belief; it’s something you know in some way.
LSD: Well, not anymore! It’s not exactly accurate to say, Tami, that we are all buddhas, because some of us are sleeping buddhas, some of us are awakened buddhas. That’s the difference. But we’re all buddhas by nature; that’s more the way of looking at it. So it’s a potential, but it’s a very close-to-us potential; it’s not far from us. We may feel far from it, but it’s never far from us.
So I myself, although I heard these great nondual teachings—“nondual” meaning not just getting from here to there on a long spiritual path, but getting from here to totally here, and being fully present to the nowness, the nowness awareness, the true Buddha within, the authentic awakened state. I heard that [teaching] in the seventies in India from many teachers, but it wasn’t until 1981 or 1982 in my first three-year retreat under Khyentse Rinpoche that I was introduced to the nature of my mind, where I awoke to it, recognized the true nature, the buddha nature, within myself, within my own heart-mind. And ever since then, I’ve had more certainty about that. And that’s something that my gurus directly pointed out to me, or sort of provoked a sort of awakening, introduction to the nature of mind, or recognition of your true nature.
TS: Can you help us be with you here, meaning you’re on a three-year retreat, so first of all I can imagine that that is a stunning thought to many people, a three-year retreat.
LSD: [Laughs] That’s great!
TS: But where were you, and what happened in this “introduction to the nature of mind”?
LSD: Well, you’re really pushing here. Usually in our tradition, we don’t talk about ourselves and our meditation and our experiences, but it is 30 years later now, and I’ve never really talked about this in public or written about this.
And so in that three-year retreat, we were visited for a few days for teachings by the late Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, a great master of the time who had many centers around the world, and who was the yoga teacher of the Dalai Lama, actually. And Kalu Rinpoche was my original root guru and refuge lama in the early ’70s, and I lived at his monastery in Darjeeling in the Himalayas. And he came in to visit, and he gave us a certain empowerment, the Karma Pakshi Karmapa guru-yoga empowerment, and when he put the crystal in front of my eyes, I realized totally that his mind and my mind and buddha mind and Karmapa were one since the beginning. The whole universe was arising and dissolving within that, and at the same time, nothing happens. And it was such a state of complete, inexpressible arriving home, this bliss, love, clarity, I don’t know, totality, transparency, translucent, trans–real essence is the only word I can use here!
And after that, everything I read about buddhas and what we were studying in our Tibetan texts and sutras and scriptures and tantric commentaries all made a hell of a lot more sense. Like where it says things in the scriptures, in Tibetan scriptures, like I’m just remembering now, my own teacher used to say, “My own mind is Buddha,” but I never realized this. And even thoughts are just reflections of reality, like waves in the sea of reality, but I didn’t realize it. And the Great Way is naturalness itself. “Ordinary mind is the way,” as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say it.
So I gained a great conviction about this, and this is what I try to teach and transmit to my own students and friends today. It’s a sort of an esoteric or secret, abstruse teaching from outside, but from inside it’s the most obvious thing in the world. You can’t miss it; it’s so clear that it’s self-evident, that everything is it. And you can live your life with joy and appreciation.
In fact, Tami, since you asked me about the pith instructions, it occurs to me to say that the shortest pith instruction, what we call the shortest Dzogchen teaching, is “E-ma-ho,” which is one word, which means “Wondrous delight” or “Wondrous amazement” or “Wonderment.” So just “E-ma-ho” is already a pith instruction to wake up to the nowness and revel in it, delight in it, as it is right now.
And this was not a teaching I could really experience when I was too young to appreciate it. I had to go through many practices, all the foundational practices and mantras and prostrations and yogas and meditations and monastic trainings and other things in the 1970s till I could wake up to that. Some people woke up quicker, some people slower, but the fact is that we’re all buddhas by nature, and what’s the rush? Emaho!
TS: So this crystal was held up to your forehead. What do you think happened in those moments?
LSD: Kalu Rinpoche put it in front of my eyes, and he shouted, “What is this?” And it sparked a— Of course, he shouted it in Tibetan: Sam kai ein? I don’t know. I think it’s like a jewel cutter: when he taps on the vital flaw, the jewel opens and it’s perfection; it doesn’t just break open or smash to smithereens, like if you or I were doing it. The masters have that skillful means, upaya, to be able to help us awaken. But it’s a combination of the ripening of karma, the blessings, the inspiration, the grace waves. What should we call it? It’s the energy of the lineage, of the invisible ray reaching back all the way back to the Buddha, and even beyond to the primordial Buddha and all the buddhas. That energy coming “as if from above or outside,” combined with the ripening of this suitable vessel, or the disciple, the student, coming, if you like, as if from within. And when those two meet, there’s a cosmic epiphany called satori or breakthrough or awakening or realization or recognition, introduction of the true nature of buddha mind within oneself and within all beings.
And this is not just Buddhist talk. In my desultory reading of the mystic traditions of the world, I’ve noticed that the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, called it the inner light. And he said that we all have it, and for that he was persecuted and the Quakers had to leave England. In Buddhism we say that all beings are endowed with this clear light of buddha nature; all beings, not just human beings. So some of my Christian friends tell me that animals don’t have souls; that’s not the way Buddhists look at it.
So this inner light, or inner buddha-ness, this inner radiance, natural radiance, suffuses and endows all of us with all that we need, more than we could dream of, if we would only plummet and exploit it, even. We could exploit our own natural resources for a change, stop strip mining the world and the environment, start exploiting our own natural resources for a change, for the betterment of all.
TS: Now, in your own life, would you say that there was sort of before this awakening to the nature of mind and after, and that it was a marker that your life was radically different in some way before and after, or not?
LSD: Yes and no. You know, the French saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”? It’s like that. Before I was different, now I’m the same. That was the change.
If that’s too vague or too much like fast Zen footwork, I’ll say yes. I went from knowing or thinking, believing, hearing, that there was a there there, to being there and knowing there was a there there, and being there.
TS: OK. And how did that change how you acted, you know, everything?
LSD: Well, it took a while to sink in. As others have said, at first I just wanted to stay in it all the time and more and more. Like I think one of my masters in the lineage said, “Like a thirsty man in a desert coming upon an oasis.” [I wanted to] just drink and drink. But it was like the sun had dawned, and it was not where I thought it was, and it was a complete shift in perspective, figure-ground shift. Not like I was looking up at the stars, but more like I was the sky that all the stars were in.
But then gradually, the obscurations and habits and conditioning returned, and I was sort of back more in my own self-centered personal perspective, thinking about how I feel and my own personal preoccupations of the day. Even the three-year retreat, you’re still a human being; in a monastic setting, you’re still a human being that likes this better than that, that wants this and doesn’t want that, all the pushing and pulling that we do that’s so exhausting in life, based on delusion and separateness, and ways that we avoid being totally present and now.
So it changed me, and it didn’t change me. But I had a different perspective, and I wore that neurosis more lightly. In fact, it may be my sole contribution to Buddhist scholarship to have coined a new term for this sort of neurosis; I called it the “neurotic-kaya.” It’s one of the bodies of Buddha-ness, the neurotic-kaya. “The five poisons are obscuring emotions arising as the five jewel-like luminous lights of wisdom: the neurotic-kaya.” So long live the neurotic-kaya!
TS: It’s a very original contribution, LSD!
LSD: Thank you! I’m proud of it. And pride is another sin of the neurotic-kaya. Long live the neurotic-kaya!
But there’s a deity— In Tibetan Buddhism, we talk about the dignity or the divine pride of the deity, and it’s that. If you can laugh at your own foibles, that’s the divine pride; that’s not ego pride.
TS: I love it.
LSD: And you also have a lot more patience and empathy with others. You were asking about how it changes one’s life? That’s how. You see everyone as like that, as different players on the divine team, with all their different styles and approaches. Not that you like them all equally, but like and dislike are so much smaller than the great love that one feels in that state of union or oneness or trans–real essence as I called it, interwoven-ness, the great perfection. “The ultimate consummation,” really, is a good translation of [the word] Dzogchen; it just means that everything is just ripe, as ripe as it can be. Beyond change, actually. This is why Buddha called it deathless nirvana.
Buddhists usually repeat unthinkingly too often, like a catechism, “Everything is impermanent.” But that’s not what Buddha said; Buddha said, “Everything that’s put together, all compounded things, are impermanent.” He talked about space as an example of something that’s not permanent, and he specifically talked about nirvana as not impermanent: deathless nirvana, endless nirvana. So we can live in that inexhaustible state or space that’s not a state; it’s really the United State of Mind, let’s say. And it’s inexhaustible.
I remember somebody once at an interview with my guru, the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a child once asked him, the old master— Get this picture, Tami: there’s the old master who is very large, maybe six foot two or three, which is huge for an Asian, and at a little audience blessing the children, this little European child asked him, “Lama, what’s the difference between money and enlightenment?” And I thought, “Oh my God! What kind of frivolous answer I would give if I was asked that: what’s the difference between money and enlightenment, master?” And the master, without blinking an eye, he said, “Money can run out. Enlightenment never ends.” I thought that was so great.
So not quite everything is impermanent and unreliable, that’s my point. And we can find something to rely on; that’s the meaning of the innermost refuge, really, to arrive at that kind of realization or conviction that never runs out, that never lets us down, that does not change. That’s the ground of the path, and that’s also the goal. That’s where we’re coming from, and that’s where we’re heading to. That’s where we are, if we can stand it, to stand in that; that’s the ultimate stance: mahamudra, supreme outlook.
TS: Using a word like the “deathless,” that’s a very powerful word, LSD. Do you have a sense that when you die, that some part of you doesn’t die? What is deathless in you?
LSD: When you die to yourself, then you don’t think that “Some part of me doesn’t die”; you realize total ruination, what the Christian mystics call the total ruination. But it’s like Buddhists would call it anatta, or no-self, selflessness, that we’re part of the whole. So we continue, but it’s not just like “me” continuing; it’s that underlying continuity, to use a weak translation of the name of a Tibetan text. The underlying continuity, the Tao, continues; the waves come and go, but the river continues.
That’s why in Buddhism we don’t talk in the positive exactly; maybe we don’t talk in the positive enough, so it’s a little hard to understand for Western minds today, but we prefer to talk about it [using words] like “selfless” or “deathless,” not “immortal,” not “eternal.” But it doesn’t mean there’s not this ongoing clear light or luminosity, this luminous spirit. It’s not personal, nor is it impersonal. It’s not personal, it’s transpersonal. It’s inclusive. Unborn and undying true nature, or dharmakaya, that’s what we call it. That’s Buddha’s scripture, and that’s what I experience or feel. That’s what I think.
TS: I’ve never heard that phrase before: “total ruination.” What is that from?
LSD: It’s from the Christian mystics.
TS: And they’re referring to?
LSD: Ego death. Dying into God. Even dying before you die. As the Sufis say, “Die before you die, and you shall never die.” They’re talking about ego death. First a bubble of self in the ocean of being, in the great ocean, and then even when that bubble reassembles, as I was talking about after my own awakening experience, you have a whole different view of the ocean, and you know you don’t have to slay your ego, you don’t have to burst the bubble to be part of the sea that you’ve always been in. You can see through yourself while still being an individuated, healthy adult self. So you have a healthy ego, not an egotistical, self-centered narcissistic ego, egotism running rampant.
That brings me to a pith instruction I think is very important, which is one of those we’ve talked about in Natural Radiance, which is “Not too tight, not too loose.” So we shouldn’t veer between the extremes, Tami, of all or nothing. Like in relationships, which I know you’re expert at, never to say “never” or “always.” Oops, look, I just said it! You know how damaging it can be, and how really inaccurate and useless—un-useful, let’s say—it can be, to say too much “never” and “always,” which are rarely true. So in Buddhism, the Buddha taught the middle way: not too tight and not too loose. And that’s a great vajra—or trustworthy, adamantine—pith instruction. Not to be too ascetic, perfectionist, and not to be too indulgent, or floppy sloppy, but balance in the middle way. Moderation, but also moderation in moderation. Not too tight and not too loose.
TS: In Natural Radiance, in addition to offering quite a few pith instructions, you also emphasize—and [this is] the reason we included an audio track, a CD, with the book, is that you talk a lot about the importance of the oral tradition and the oral transmission of these ideas and of waking up. Can you talk about that? Why is the oral tradition so important?
LSD: Well, for various reasons. One is, it’s like parenting. We all need a womb mother to give birth to us, but we can grow up without parents, without even a mother, but we need a mother to give birth to us. Similarly, we need parents to help us grow up. And of course single parenting is also possible, but most people grow up better if they have two parents. And a lot of that is from the personal care and sort of the pith instructions of the parents, like “This is how you do this, this is how you do the potty, this is how you tie your shoe.” It’s hard to learn that from a book or in school. It’s too intimate, it’s too personal. And it’s also a shortcut: rather than studying all about it, about the dynamics of elimination and digestion or plumbing for that matter, or the dynamics, the science of shoelaces and leather and shoemaking and all that and sailor knots. No—[instead] your parent or your elder sibling kneels down and shows you and tells you, and you learn to tie your shoe that way. And we all did.
And that’s the beauty of the pithy instructions, these oral instructions passed on by the wise masters. It’s kind of like a grandmother’s recipe for chicken soup; it’s the secret recipe for enlightenment that people have found tried-and-true, found useful themselves in their place and circumstance, not just one of the many, many, many recipes or trial-and-error methods, not just one of the 84,000 dharmas taught by the enlightened master, the Buddha, but actually something fitting for the time and circumstance, combined with the care of the elder that’s passing it on, hopefully intended, selflessly intended, directly for the situation of the younger [one] who’s receiving it. So it’s very pointed, it’s very sharp, it’s very much to the point, on the point, and it can really make a difference.
So in that way, maybe we’re not all scholars, maybe we’re not all philosophers, maybe we’re not all people who studied religion for many years, [but] we can just learn a technique or two and go very far with it, without learning all about the whole religion and cosmology and history of the thing. And I think that’s very pertinent and important for us today, just as it always has been throughout history, for some people to get right to the quick, to the marrow, to the essence. And that’s why we have the pith instructions. I found it to be true for myself.
Sometimes they’re not even verbal, Tami. In our tradition, we talk about the different ways of pointing out this dharmakaya or this innate buddha-ness, and the pith instructions are usually thought of as oral, or with words. In other words, not just reading it in books, not just philosophically convincing somebody to believe in it, but to give them the actual experience, kind of a little bit of spiritual-energy shock therapy. But they could also be pointing out with gestures, with mudras; there are many stories of how a gesture has awakened somebody. Or it could be with a movement, like pounding the table to startle somebody into awakefulness. Or it could be, as in the case of the ancient master Tilopa in India, the crazy-wisdom sage yogi Tilopa, who kicked his disciple, the learned, spick-and-span, abbot and pundit philosopher Naropa, in the face with his filthy sandal and awoke him, the greatest mahamudra realization in history, the waves of which are still rolling down to us through the Kagyu mahamudra lineage today.
So in today’s litigious society, masters can’t really go around kicking and beating their disciples, but there are many ways to shock us out of our complacency and habitual ways of seeing and being, out of our habitual conditioning and thinking, so that we experience a completely new way of seeing and being. Not just a little bit of incremental change, but an exponential leap, like a hyperjump, to a different state, an elevated state of consciousness.
So there are different kinds of pith instructions, or ways of pointing out, and I’ve mentioned some of them: oral, gestures, actions, and sometimes even just mind to mind, where the powerful, let’s say, intention or buddha mind of the master, the accumulated energy of that master’s lifetime of practice or lifetimes of practice in the whole lineage, is brought to bear upon a particular disciple’s heart-mind; it’s mind-to-mind transmission, through a gaze or vision or even in dreams it can happen. And these things do happen, even today.
TS: So really when you talk about the oral tradition, it’s not so much the sound of the voice, it’s more this personal, the right context, the right moment, it’s all based on that direct interaction.
LSD: Yes. That’s why it’s called direct introduction. You said it: direct access, direct introduction to the nature of mind. They always say “direct.”
And it’s unmistakable. The example is given is like if you met your father in a crowded marketplace, or today let’s say stadium, it wouldn’t be hard for you to recognize him. You would instantly recognize him, even if there were 100,000 people in that stadium, if he was directly in front of you.
So although the truth of who and what we are is always directly in front of us, sometimes it’s lost in that crowded stadium of our discursive thinking and welter of sensory perceptions. So direct introduction puts us face-to-face with this reality in an unmistakable manner, so that it’s self-authenticating. Tami, you yourself would know, and who could dissuade you, that you saw your father, that you met your father? Not like, “Oh, I think I glimpsed him across the stadium in the right-field bleacher.” No, it was like, “Yes, I saw my father! He was right in front of me, we shook hands. It was my father.” Who can dissuade you? No one. That’s direct introduction to the true nature, to the natural state, to our buddha-ness. That’s why the pith instruction is said, “Natural mind is buddha mind.” When you become really you, buddha is buddha. Then there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. “Done is what had to be done,” as the Buddha has said.
And this is a kind of specialty, we say. You know, I don’t like to claim uniqueness; in the religious world, everybody has their own one way or best way, so of course I have mine too. I think the Dzogchen path of Vajrayana Buddhism is the best way, but I admit that means the best way for me. Even if it’s the only way, it’s the way for me. But we talk about it, and the traditions talk about it, as being very special pith instructions pertaining to the Dzogchen lineage, that each lineage has its own specialties: some of them excel in yoga, in philosophy, in meditation, in debate, in ritual, in other things, in monastic discipline, in service to the poor, in education. The Dzogchen tradition, the Nyingmapas, excel in this pith instruction lineage. That’s what my own teacher, Khyentse Rinpoche, used to say. And this is like a special legacy or tradition. Of course, it exists elsewhere, and I even quoted from the Kagyu mahamudra tradition with Tilopa and Naropa, but we rely heavily on this pith instruction and get right to the point.
My old late, great teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche used to directly introduce people to the nature of the mind even without asking them if they had taken refuge, if they were Buddhists, if they had done preliminary practices. He used to say, “Bring me the scientists. They don’t believe in anything; they can get right to the point.” He liked people of acute faculties who got right to the point. And he introduced people to the nature of mind in surprising ways, such as pounding on the table, or asking them a question: “What shape is your mind?” Sometimes that would provoke an incredible, startling realization.
TS: You created an interesting program with Sounds True, LSD, that’s on Tibetan dream yoga. And I’m wondering, particularly in the context of our discussion, which is how people can wake up to the nature of mind, how Tibetan dream yoga fits in, and if you could just give us a couple insights, things that people might actually be able to try.
LSD: I like that program very much, and I’ve heard it’s popular; I know my students love that tape and listen to it again and again. Because it really helps us to understand what we call in Tibet, I think famously from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the bardo, in between, the transition, the transitory nature of life. In fact, all of life is a bardo, a transition, if we really look at it closely. But it’s usually thought of as the transition between death and rebirth. But what it really means is the gap between this moment and the next moment, so it really helps us enter more into the nowness awareness that is the intrinsic buddha-ness within us, the buddha reality, or the holy now. And then we do have all the time in the world; it’s the cure for time stress, time famine, time fatigue.
And it helps us to train to be aware as we’re going to sleep. For example, to meditate on the clear light behind our eyes and in our forehead as we’re going to sleep, and be awake through the stages of hypnagogic imagery arising and falling into the sleep state and the dreams, and be awake while dreaming in our sleep, be awake in the dream and know it’s a dream while we’re still asleep. And then be master rather than victim of the circumstances and conditions and happenings in the dream.
And this way, by playing with the dream reality—which is much more plastic, as it were, because we’re unencumbered by our physical form in the dream, it’s all made up of consciousness, or mind, if you like. By playing with the dream, by being master in the dream and changing the circumstances in any way we want, we learn to be more master rather than victim of conditions and circumstances, be more masterful, more of an agent rather than acted upon in our daily life, which is also a bardo, or dreamlike reality. It’s called Tibetan dream yoga; it’s one of the six yogas of Naropa, or six vajrayana yogas coming from the ancient masters of India and Tibet.
TS: It sounds pretty similar to lucid dreaming. Is it?
LSD: Yes. Lucid dreaming is modern psychology’s discovery or definition of that. Without some of the details, of course, because Tibetan Buddhism has been practicing and refining these techniques for fifteen hundred years, so there’s a lot of tools and techniques. But lucid dreaming is a way to do that, and Stephen LaBerge has developed that, and there’s even some blinking light machines and some other instructional tapes you can buy to help you do that. In Tibet they used to use a dream helper; somebody would sit by your bedside and do that, just like when you die, a lama would sit by your bedside and chant to you, or give you direct pith instructions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, believing that the consciousness can hear even though the body has breathed its last, so you can be guided through the bardo after death and into the light, rather than into the darkness of unconscious or unintentional, less desirable rebirths.
In fact, an amusing story that I observed was— You know, we often hear about these things, but we’re not usually there, and it’s usually some history, or it happened far away. But I was there when one of my—I was there soon after when unfortunately one of my monk friends died after our three-year retreats. And our elder teacher was also a rinpoche and a master himself, and he was sitting next to my friend’s laid-out body in his hermitage room. Rather than reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a formality, like the way they do often when they call a lama just to read the book over the dead person for 49 days for some time every day or something, he was shouting at my friend, “Martin! Wake up! You’re dead now! Go into the light, not the darkness! See through yourself and realize Buddha!” He was shouting in case the dead Martin couldn’t hear! It was really funny, and sad at the same time. But it was more funny; I’m sure Martin would have appreciated the humor of it all. He was a dear.
TS: Now, LSD, if I want to try Tibetan dream yoga, you mentioned going into the place of light behind my eyes before I go to bed, but can you be a little bit more specific? How can I actually try this? What instructions could you give me?
LSD: Well, it’s kind of a guided meditation where you, even if you close your eyes now and if you’re listening to this program—if you’re driving you might not want to do this, but if you close your eyes and look carefully, breathe and relax and center, and be present and mindful and attentive, and bring all of your attention to your eyelids. Look into and out through the back of your eyelids; keep your eyes closed, and look into and out of your eyelids. And I think you won’t find it’s very dark; it’s rather shimmering, isn’t it? It’s like a black light, as we used to call it in the sixties. It’s a very shimmering, iridescent featureless field. It’s a reflection of the clear light of mind, we say.
And as you gaze into that, you sort of sky gaze into that as if you were looking into the sky, breathe out through your eyelids, breathe out into that infinite, undifferentiated, luminous expanse, and sharpening and clarifying your vision, your attention, your present-moment awareness right now.
And in that way, you start to see through the see-er, and be free. Are you looking out? Are you looking in? How can you say? Just keep your eyes closed, just keep gazing into that inner iridescence, the inner clear light, which is like a reflection of the innermost nature of the heart-mind, or buddha awareness. Look at the light. Concentrate on the light, like it’s a full moon. Look into the shining face of that full moon, that iridescence, that incandescent presence. Look at the light. Become the light. Lighten up. Transparent-cizing. Be light.
Let me repeat, because these are the instructions: Look at the light. Become the light. Go into the light. Merge with the light. Be light. [These are the] five steps to lightning up and enlightenment.
This is a meditation that one can do anytime, of course. If you do that while you’re falling asleep, it could help you see through the dream images, called hypnagogic images, that arise behind your eyelids, and maintain consciousness, [to] gradually, eventually, maintain consciousness through the different stages of sleep as you enter into the sleep state, and go deeper into states one and two and three and four, you know, the rapid-eye movement, REM states and all, all the way down to dreamless sleep, where it’s really hard to be aware. In sleep you bob up and down between those four states. And then recognize everything as dreamlike and unreal and not yours. Let go of ownership, and surrender into the light and be the light. And in that, once you play with forms and situations, like a magician making things happen, that can be very freeing, and carry over into our daydream, as it were. Which is also like a bardo: the bardo from morning until night, or the bardo from birth until death.
Because everything is a transition, Tami. We live on the cusp of time and eternity, in transition. It’s really all transition and flow; there are no brackets, no bookends, no barriers. Birth and death are like bookends, but they’re very semi-permeable membranes; there’s no real solidity there. It’s just one moment after another. And that is the nature of our life. That’s why they say that time is like a river—it just keeps flowing. And that is the Great Tao. We are time, actually; there is no time. We are it, the Great Flow; it flows right through us, we don’t have to get into it. The Great Flow goes through us every moment.
And that’s the secret of these bardo teachings, how we can be fully awake to the nowness in dream or fully awake to now. Because it’s all a passage, a transition, a gap. A gap between what and what? God knows; ask her! When we see through the see-er, we are truly seeing, and free.
So let me say a few more things about this. I don’t know if it will be useful, but you don’t usually hear this. So in this kind of meditation, we’re looking at the light, we’re really looking into the, we’re sort of looking into the deep sheen of our mind. Mind is sheer lucency. We’re looking at the sheen, at the clarity of our own mind. They say the eye can’t see itself, but I say with a mirror, the eye can. So in this way, the eye is seeing itself; or a sword is sort of cutting itself, and cutting through and cutting deeper.
TS: Well, first of all, thank you, LSD, that’s helpful about Tibetan dream yoga. And you know, we’ve made a couple jokes between us that our audience may not be following, that have to do with your saying, “Oh, Tami, she’s so interested in relationships and falling in love again.” We had a previous conversation where you and I were catching up with each other, we hadn’t talked in a while, and I was asking you about your love life, because it’s a topic that I’m terribly interested in, people’s love lives, my own and others.
And I’m curious, here we’ve been talking about this great, vast expanse of light, and then there’s just the whole realm of human relationships and how difficult they can be in so many different ways. And I’m curious, over the last couple of decades, about this part of your life, and what you’ve learned and how this great realization can come into relationships and what you’ve learned about them.
LSD: Well, I don’t know if I have great realization, but I have tried to mingle my life with the dharma, and I think that’s all we can do as bodhisattva practitioners on the path. And of course that includes relationships.
Although I lived like a monk most of my twenties and thirties, I did have one great love story that went on and off for a long time, [a woman] who I met in India when I was 22 or 23. And then I was a monk for seven or eight years and in the three-year retreats, and she was a nun in Korea for six years. And we only saw each other very every once in a while after that. But let’s see, I got married when I was 50, which was about eight years ago, so . . .
Relationship is a part of life, obviously. And the most important part of life is how we encounter every moment; that is the real relationship. I think Martin Buber talked about this in I and Thou, how to have I-thou relations with everything. And that is something that Buddhism is very, very deep into, although it’s not made explicit. Maybe Western dharma could explain this a little more in the modern times, to apply deep dharma to our time and place, how making every moment meaningful is the true relationship; as Buddhism teaches, how to encounter every mind-moment. So relationship doesn’t just mean with other people; it means with every thought, with every perception, with every feeling, how we relate to it, object relations and so on.
But back to the general relationship story, which I think is what you were asking about. I think if Buddha was alive today—and he is—he would add an extra inning or two to his famous eightfold path, which might be called “right relationship” or “wise relationship.” Because most people today are laypeople, not monastics, not celibate, not solitary hermits, and relationship, like work, love, sex, is such an important part of our life. And it’s a beautiful part, and it shouldn’t and can’t be denied. And of course Buddha did consider work and vocation an important part of the spiritual path, step five on the eight steps to enlightenment, the noble eightfold path; right livelihood or right vocation, making a life, not just living. Very, very important.
And I think right or wise relationship would also be an extra inning on the eightfold path, maybe the ninth inning, and maybe the tenth inning would be good humor. And I think relational mindfulness is very important, to bring to bear our spirit, the best that we have in us, to relationships, and not just look at it as some kind of distraction or diversion from the real spiritual work.
So I’ve learned a lot from my gurus, my masters, my teachers, mentors, and elder spiritual friends, and also I’ve learned a great deal from the beautiful women in my life. And a real relationship, like a real guru-disciple relationship, Tami, a real relationship, is like a mirror that reveals your best and worst parts. It’s like a makeup mirror with the bright stage lights around, like a stage mirror that shows you all your pores and your acne scars more than usual lighting [does]. So in that way, as we know, relationships are just about the greatest facilitator or catalyst for the big ups and downs in our lives. And I think that’s really enriched me and humbled me and made me more of a mensch than I would have been without them.
And by the way, I do want to say I think it’s very important to balance divine love, or trying to develop unconditional love and compassion, and loving all beings equally, and all of those great high ideals, with the very meticulous, finely ground approach to karma of loving people one by one, not just trying to love everybody, but finding a way to love somebody. And particularly finding a way to love oneself. Don’t leave oneself out of the equation; self-acceptance is a huge part of true relationship and loving. And when we can love ourselves, we can truly, generously love others. And when we love and accept others, the whole world loves and accepts us.
And love doesn’t come from outside, Tami. Love comes from loving. That’s very important. It’s a way; loving is a way. “Relationship” is a verb.
TS: I wanted to take the conversation into that kind of grounded place, because we were talking so much about through the vast sky of being, and I felt that I was traveling there with you during this conversation, and I wanted to make sure that we hit the ground and hit the specificity of our lives and the difficult part of our lives. And you know, recently you recorded a program with Sounds True, Buddha Is As Buddha Does, on the bodhisattva ideal. And I’m curious, in the process of writing that book and then teaching an audio program on it and being immersed in this whole discussion of the bodhisattva, how you worked with just all of the ways—and each of us has to work with—that we fall short of the bodhisattva ideal?
LSD: Well, that’s a good question. I spent two or three years teaching about the bodhisattva way and the 10 transformative virtues, the 10 panacean practices of the bodhisattva paramitas, and researching and telling stories about it, and asking some of my lama and scholar friends about some of the esoteric aspects of the outer behavioral and the inner attitudinal, and then the secret kind of wisdom or suchness, the innermost mystical level of those virtues and practices. And many times it’s kind of daunting to realize the vastness and grandeur and the depth and profundity of these panacean virtues and these teachings, and the greatness of my own spiritual teachers, who actually seem to live and embody those virtues and to exemplify them, even. It’s inspiring, and it also makes one recognize one’s own shortcomings and failings.
But part of the bodhisattva vow is to rejoice in just being able to make the attempt, fight the good fight, do the good work, try to make a difference in this world and the next. There’s a lot of joy in that, which is the fourth paramita or transformative virtue, joyous enthusiasm and effort. So it all kind of reinforces itself. The dark and the light come together: wherever the light is brightest, the shadows are darkest, as they say.
And I had to face in myself not just wanting to, not falling into the trap of just telling all the enlightenment stories and ignoring the struggles on the path and how hard it is to give generously when you just feel like you can’t give anymore. How hard it is to just keep being patient with the teenagers when they’re so demanding and ungrateful and hormone-ridden. Or how hard it is to be tolerant and accepting of those who have such different beliefs than us and seem so dogmatic and set in their ways, and even dangerous in this world. And how to be wise when clarity is in such short supply, and emotions overwhelm us and tarnish our view. How to be wise and clear, calm and centered, and make wise and skillful and beneficial decisions for the long run, as well as for the short-term gratification.
So it really made me face my own defects and limitations. As I was saying, like looking at a stage mirror with the lightbulbs around it, it shows up your skin that much clearer, and you see the defects more than anything that you never noticed before, under that glaring light. And so in that way it was a great practice, and it was also a challenge. And I think it was a catalyst to work harder on having really a good heart and cultivating unselfishness and generosity and all those virtues, and not just dream about these highfalutin ideals, like oneness, and trans–real essence, and remember that once upon a time my master and I were one—and meanwhile I somehow am feeling jealous of the next author’s success or something like that, these moments that we all have in our careers, or for that matter in our relationships.
So I think that these are great practices to be engaged in, if you have the right motivation and keep your wits about you, to keep your intention together to be a bodhisattva, to be progressing on the path, and for the betterment of all, not just selfishly.
TS: Well, good lama LSD, the “Deli Lama,” I’m hoping that we can end our conversation with you leading us in some kind of blessing. I love to hear you chant.
LSD: Thank you. I love to chant. Yes, and bless you, and bless yourself and everyone. And I hope everyone will join in wishing blessings and benedictions to the world. Don’t be stingy; give out your benedictions and blessings from your good heart that’s right there in your chest. Don’t overlook it.
[Chants in Tibetan, then translates] May the light of enlightenment arise and awaken where it has not yet been arisen. And where it has already arisen, may it be fanned into flame, into blaze, and illumine the entire world for the boundless benefit of one and all. Homage to the natural, great perfection, the innate radiance; homage to the budda-ness within. Don’t overlook it.
Peace and well-being to one and all. Sarva Mangalam.
TS: Thank you, LSD. The author of many programs with Sounds True, including two DVDs, one on natural meditation and one on Tibetan energy yoga; an audio program on Tibetan dream yoga; a book/CD called Natural Radiance, which includes many of the pith instructions we discussed; Awakening to Your Great Perfection; and a recent audio program called Buddha Is As Buddha Does, which is on the bodhisattva ideal.
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