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Without Center or Limit Print
Shambhala Sun | March 2001

Without Center or Limit


           As sentient beings, we think, we remember, we plan—and the attention thus exerted moves towards an object and sticks to it. This mental movement is called thinking or conceptual mind. We have many different expressions in Tibetan to describe the functioning of this basic attitude of mind, of this extroverted consciousness unaware of its own nature. This ignorant mind grabs hold of objects, forms concepts about them, and gets involved and caught up in the concepts it has created. This is the nature of samsara, and it has been continuing through beginningless lifetimes up to the present moment.
                All these involvements are merely fabricated creations; they are not the natural state. They are based on the concepts of subject and object, perceiver and perceived. This dualistic structure, together with the disturbing emotions and the karma that is produced through them, are the forces that drive us from one samsaric experience to another. Yet all the while, there is still the basic nature, which is not made out of anything whatsoever. It is totally unconstructed and empty, and at the same time it is aware: it has the quality of being able to cognize. This indivisible unity of being empty and cognizant is our original ground that is never lost.

From “Without Center or Limit” by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Shambhala Sun, March 2001.


Emotional Alchemy Print
Shambhala Sun | March  2001


Emotional Alchemy


Tara Bennett-Goleman describes how the transforming power of mindfulness can be applied to our painful emotional patterns.

‘‘Each thing has to transform itself into something better,  and acquire a new destiny,” Paulo Coelho writes in his novel The Alchemist. Coelho describes the world as only the visible aspect of God, with invisible spiritual forces at play that remain largely unknown to us. Alchemy occurs when the spiritual plane comes into contact with the material plane.
    I was given Coelho’s book by a client, who told me, “This reminds me of our work together.” Indeed, alchemy offers an apt metaphor for the process of working with emotions I will describe.
    Alchemists, the tales go, sought to use a magical philosopher’s stone to transmute lead into gold. But lead and gold, in the more philosophical school of alchemy, were metaphors for internal states: the alchemist’s discipline was one of psychological and spiritual transformation. Alchemists realized that the mystery they sought to solve was not outside but in the psyche.
    Some alchemical schools liken our ordinary state of mind to a lump of coal and compare clear awareness to a diamond. There would seem to be no greater contrast in the material world than that between coal and a diamond, and yet the two are but different arrangements of the identical molecules of carbon. Just as a diamond is coal transformed, so clear awareness can arise from our confusion.
    What intrigues me about the metaphor of alchemy is the importance it places on the process of transformation. One client, an acupuncturist who has studied Chinese medicine, told me that the word “alchemy,” better than any other word, describes the process of integrating the practice of mindfulness meditation with emotional work: “Alchemy is accepting everything in the pot without trying to reject or correct it—seeing that even the negative is part of the learning and healing.”
    Mindfulness means seeing things as they are, without trying to change them. The point is to dissolve our reactions to disturbing emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself. Mindfulness can change how we relate to, and perceive, our emotional states; it doesn’t necessarily eliminate them.
    The warmth of sunlight dissolving the moisture of clouds—nature’s alchemy—echoes the warm fire of mindfulness melting the emotional clouds covering our inner nature. The effects of such periods of insightful clarity may be fleeting and momentary, lasting only until the next emotional cloud forms. But rekindling this awareness again and again—bringing it to bear on these inner clouds, letting it penetrate and dissolve the haze in our minds—is the heart of mindfulness practice, a practice we can learn to sustain.
    I believe that, given the right awareness tools, we all have the potential to be inner alchemists, with the natural ability to turn our moments of confusion into insightful clarity. Gradually, as we practice doing this with our troubling feelings, we can gain an understanding of their causes.
    For the most part these insights are psychological, especially at first. But if we continue this process we can gain insights into the workings of the mind itself that can be spiritually liberating. It’s as though there are two levels of reality in our lives: one dominated by these deeply ingrained emotional patterns and another that is free from conditioned patterns. Mindfulness gives us breathing space from this conditioning.
    Emotional alchemy allows for the possibility that our bewilderment and turmoil might blossom into insightful clarity. “In almost every bad situation,” says the Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera, “there is the possibility of a transformation by which the undesirable may be changed into the desirable.”
    There is a simple but ingenious judo in this emotional alchemy: to embrace all experiences as part of a transformative path by making them the focus of mindfulness. Instead of seeing disturbance and turmoil as a distraction, realize that they too can become the target of a keen attention. “In that way,” Nyanaponika notes, “enemies are turned into friends, because all these disturbances and antagonistic forces have become our teachers.”
    Mindfulness is a meditative awareness that cultivates the capacity to see things just as they are from moment to moment. Ordinarily our attention swings rather wildly, carried here and there by random thoughts, fleeting memories, captivating fantasies, snatches of things seen, heard or otherwise perceived. By contrast, mindfulness is a distraction-resistant, sustained attention to the movements of the mind itself. Instead of being swept away and captured by a thought or feeling, mindfulness steadily observes those thoughts and feelings as they come and go.
    Essentially, mindfulness entails a new way of paying attention, a way to expand the scope of awareness while refining its precision. In this training of the mind we learn to let go of the thoughts and feelings that pull us out of the present moment, and to steady our awareness on our immediate experience. If distractedness breeds emotional turmoil, the ability to sustain our gaze, to keep looking, can bring greater clarity and insight.
    Mindfulness has its roots in an ancient system of Buddhist psychology, little known in the West, one that even today offers a sophisticated understanding of the painful emotions that sabotage our happiness. This psychology offers a scientific approach to inner work, a theory of mind that anyone, Buddhist or not, can draw insights and benefit from. When we apply this approach, the emphasis is not so much on the problems in our lives as on connecting with the clarity and health of mind itself. If we can do this, our problems become more workable. They become opportunities to learn rather than threats to avoid.
    Buddhist psychology holds a refreshingly positive view of human nature: our emotional problems are seen as temporary and superficial. The emphasis is on what is right with us, an antidote to the fixation of Western psychology on what’s wrong with us. Buddhist psychology acknowledges our disturbing emotions but sees them as covering our essential goodness like clouds covering the sun. In this sense, our darker moments and most upsetting feelings are an opportunity for uncovering our natural wisdom, if we choose to use them that way.
    Mindful attention allows us to delve deeper into the moment, to perceive finer subtlety, than does ordinary attention. In this sense, mindfulness creates a “wise” attention, a space of clarity that emerges when we quiet the mind. It makes us more receptive to the whispers of our innate intuitive wisdom.

Through my own inner work, as well as in my work as a psychotherapist and workshop leader, I have found that combining a mindful awareness with psychological investigation forges a powerful means to penetrate dense emotions. This meditative awareness, I’ve found, can bring us a remarkably subtle understanding of our emotional patterns and so help us find ways to unravel deep fixations and destructive habits.
    In this work, I’ve found two methods to be especially potent for detecting and transforming emotional patterns: mindfulness meditation and a recent adaptation of cognitive therapy, called schema therapy, which focuses on repairing maladaptive emotional habits. Both of these methods—one ancient and one modern—bring awareness to destructive emotional habits, and that is the first step toward healing them.
    Becoming aware of these emotional habits is the first step, because unless we can catch and challenge them as they are triggered by the events of our lives, they will dictate how we perceive and react. And the more they take us over, the more they’ll keep coming back, complicating our relationships, our work, and the most basic ways in which we see ourselves.
    Schema therapy was developed by Dr. Jeffrey Young, the founder of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New York. It focuses on healing maladaptive patterns, or schemas, like the sense of emotional deprivation, or relentless perfectionism. In working with my own clients, I have found that mindfulness meditation and schema therapy work together naturally and powerfully.
    Schema therapy gives us a clear map to destructive habits. It details the emotional contours of, say, the fear of abandonment, with its constant apprehension that a partner will leave us; or of feelings of vulnerability, such as the irrational fear that a minor setback at work means you will end up jobless and homeless.
    There are ten such major schemas (and countless variations); most of us have one or two principal ones, though many of us have several others to some extent. Other common schemas include unlovability, the fear that people would reject us if they truly knew us; mistrust, the constant suspicion that those close to us will betray us; social exclusion, the feeling that we don’t belong; failure, the sense that we cannot succeed at what we do; subjugation, always giving in to other people’s wants and demands; and entitlement, the sense that one is somehow special, and so beyond ordinary rules and limits.
    Through working with my clients, it has become clear to me that adding mindfulness to psychotherapy greatly enhances its effectiveness, helping clients see the otherwise invisible emotional patterns at the root of their suffering. I have been struck by how much the therapy process was accelerated when a client practiced mindfulness. I have found that combining a mindful awareness with psychological investigation forges a powerful tool for cultivating emotional wisdom on a practical, day-to-day level.
    Much time in psychotherapy typically entails bringing the detailed anatomy of emotional habits into the light of awareness so they can be investigated, reflected on, and changed. But mindfulness meditation can make any system of psychotherapy more precise and attuned, letting us bring our own wisdom to the psychological unfolding. Instead of seeing the therapy or even the therapist as the cure, we can shift our focus to the healing qualities of our own inner wisdom. This wake-up call need not be set apart from our lives; it needn’t be something we do only in isolated hours in a therapist’s office. It can be part of life, moment to moment, with the application of mindfulness.
    Mindfulness is synergistic with virtually any psychotherapy approach, not just schema therapy. If you are in psychotherapy, mindfulness offers a way to cultivate a capacity for self-observation that you can bring to whatever confronts you during the day. Combining mindfulness with psychotherapy may help you use more fully the opportunity for inner exploration that your therapy offers.
    When it comes to the turbulent feelings that roil within us, it’s not that we are able to wrap up our bewildering emotions in neat formulaic explanations, but that we can use an ongoing inquiry to reach small epiphanies, insights that grow one on the other toward a greater clarity. In a sense, our darker moments and most upsetting feelings are an opportunity for spiritual growth and uncovering our natural wisdom, for waking up—if we choose to use them that way. If so, our deepest insights can emerge from working directly—with awareness—with our own difficulties.
    A strong emotional obsession or pattern is like the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy and her companions finally get to Oz. The Wizard is this powerful, looming presence that terrifies them—until the little dog Toto calmly goes over and pulls back the curtain to reveal an old man stooped over the controls, manipulating a huge wizard image. Emotional fixations are like that—if you see them clearly, unflinchingly, for what they really are, you take the power away from them. They no longer control you.
    Confusion dawns as clarity. ©

©2000 by Tara Bennett-Goleman. Reprinted with permission of Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
Tara Bennett-Goleman is a psychotherapist and long-time student of Buddhism. This article is adapted from her new book, Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart, which integrates mindfulness and Buddhist psychology with schema therapy and neuroscience, published by Harmony Books.

Emotional Alchemy by Tara Bennett-Goleman, Shambhala Sun, March 2001.


How We Make Ourselves Suffer Print

How We Make Ourselves Suffer


“Our problem is that we don’t really understand what is going on: this seemingly solid world is volatile by nature.”

When we study the Buddhist dharma, we are not supposed to blindly accept what we are told. Instead, we should study our experience. It’s not easy to believe the truth, even if we have heard it many times, even if we want to believe it. We have to look at our own experience and discover the truth of the teachings there. Discussions about dharma have been going on for thousands of years. To find our way, it helps to go slowly and see how it works.

One of the fundamental Buddhist teachings is that all sentient beings suffer. There are lots of reasons for this and logics for how to understand the reasons. But the main avenue for understanding this truth is to look at our own experience.

This suffering we are talking about has many qualities and facets. Suffering is complicated. Why do we suffer? We have to look deeper in order to understand. We have to understand how the whole thing came about. How do we begin to understand that? We meditate on it. By meditating and contemplating, we can begin to unravel the source of our suffering. Otherwise, we sit and suffer in ignorance, not knowing what is going on and how we perpetuate our own and others’ suffering.


One cause of suffering is trying to deny the truth of impermanence. Understanding impermanence is truly understanding causes and conditions. We are mistaken if we think that because someone we know dies and we can accept the loss, we understand impermanence. It is not that simple.

According to Buddhism, all conditioned things are impermanent. What does “conditioned” mean? Everything that occurs is conditioned. All actions are conditioned, or tainted, by causes. Particular causes and conditions come together to create something.

We ourselves are conditioned. Everything in our life is impermanent, from physical possessions to plans about the future. Every moment of our experience is impermanent. There is nothing solid about any experience we have. However, we feel that we are solid and permanent and that definite events occur in our lives. We try to hang on to these moments of experience, but they are like sand running through our fingers.

When we slow our mind down until it is steady enough to settle on these truths, they can begin to sink in. The mind tries to create a sense of permanence for itself all the time, but if we reach a more subtle level of watching the mind, we see how causes and conditions come together to give us the illusion of our own permanence.

Even our current thoughts are based on causes and conditions. We can contemplate this notion by trying to come up with something we know that is not caused and conditioned. We won’t be able to. But we can slow down enough to simply notice what is going on. We can examine our own experience this way and discover how, through creating and believing in a self that is permanent, we cause suffering.

Making the Self Real

The notion of suffering at this level is straightforward: it is not being content. Whether we experience physical or emotional discomfort, our mind is not at ease. Because our world is constantly coming together and falling apart, we are always trying to pull one over on ourselves by imagining that we are in a permanent situation. We are always trying to make things real. Our problem is that we don’t really understand what is going on: this seemingly solid world is volatile by nature. Our suffering comes from not understanding or acknowledging that this is the nature of the self.

The fact is that when we examine the issue, we actually have a hard time finding a self in anything, anyone, or any situation. Say, for example, we contemplate Karme Choling meditation center in Vermont. We have a definite sense of what it is. But where is the “self” of Karme Choling? Is it in the meditation hall? Is it in the trees? Is it in the dining room or the hallways or the front office? When we examine and contemplate, we can’t really find the self, the thing that is Karme Choling. In the same way it is hard to find a self, a thing or entity, that is “me.” We are made up of a lot of constantly shifting pieces, really, but we desperately try to think of them as one being, myself.

Birth, Aging, Death

As soon as we are born we begin to age. We suffer the whole way along, not only when we get old. When we are babies we are helpless, then we have the pain of growing up, the pain of adolescence, finding our way. We come together, grow, and decompose. We get sick along the way, and then we die. But we are always trying to maintain ourselves. We try to avoid getting sick; we are terrified of death, even if we prepare ourselves for it. In death, everything we have tried to gather about ourselves dissolves completely. All our life we have maintained this body, and when we die the experience of loss is far beyond what we can imagine.

So I’m suggesting that it is helpful to understand that at every moment our mind, thoughts, and body are changing. They are uneasy and unstable and this feels uncomfortable and dangerous. It feels so dangerous and threatening that we want to force our existence to be solid. But in our attempts to deny the truth, we can’t deny a certain agitation, a certain knowledge that we are kidding ourselves sneaks through. We are trying to have a good time, trying to enjoy birth, aging and death, but pleasure just keeps turning into pain. The first step toward relating to that pain is to recognize how we do all this. The next step, of course, is to try to stop.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is president of Shambhala International and holder of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition of his father, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

How We Make Ourselves Suffer, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, January 2001.

On the Importance of Relating to Unseen Beings Print

On the Importance of Relating to Unseen Beings


While Westerners have tended to view unseen beings as superstition or mere symbolism, Reginald A. Ray argues that communication with unseen beings through ritual is at the very heart of tantric Buddhist practice.

Truth makes little sense and has no real impact if it is merely a collection of abstract ideas. Truth that is living experience, on the other hand, is challenging, threatening, and transforming.

Tibetan Buddhism is a way of experiencing the world. In many ways, it is quite different from the dominant trends not only in the West, but in the “modern, technological culture” that is now rapidly encircling the globe. There are many parts of the traditional, conservative, medieval culture of Tibet that we will never be able to appreciate or understand. But there are other parts, particularly its Buddhist heritage, that can help us see with new eyes the limitations and possibilities of our own contemporary situation.

Buddhism is a particularly interesting tradition because it has one foot in the past and one in the present. On the one hand, it arose at a time when India was undergoing transformation from a more primitive to a “high” civilization. Buddhism has the same literacy, scholasticism, professional elites, institutionalization, hierarchies, political involvements, and monetary concerns as do the other “high religions” that evolved after the invention of agriculture and that we now largely identify as our own ways of being religious.

At the same time, the Buddha claimed, “I follow the ancient path,” and by this he meant to show a “way back” to a more fundamental experience of human life than the one evolving in his day. Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps more than any other form of Buddhism, has retained the raw and rugged experience of this “primordiality” as the basis of its spirituality. In this sense, it is concerned not with truth that is fixed and dead, but with truth that is alive and constantly emerging.

Traditional Tibetans lived in a world that is, in many respects, quite different from the one assumed in modern Western culture. It is not so much that the classical Tibetan worldview contradicts the findings of modern science, but rather that it emphasizes different things and has a different overall shape and configuration.

Most importantly, in the classical Buddhist view, the world is defined not only by what we can perceive with our physical senses and think about rationally. It is equally made up of what cannot be seen, but is available through intuition, dreams, visions, divination, and the like. The senses and rational mind provide access to the immediate physical world, but it is only through the other ways of knowing that can one gain access to the much larger context in which this physical realm is set. Can modern people have experience of this traditional Tibetan cosmology? Tibetans will tell you that their experience of the universe is accessible to anyone who cares to know it. If you know where to look and how to look, they say, you will see for yourself what we are talking about.

The Tibetan cosmos is a vast one, beginningless and endless in terms of time, and limitless in extent. Worlds, each inhabited by sentient beings, extend on and on throughout space, with no end. This context of infinite space and time, with innumerable worlds, provides the arena for samsara, cyclic existence. Samsara refers to the condition of beings who have not yet attained liberation, whose existence is still governed by belief in a “self” or “ego.” Those still within samsara are thus blindly driven, through the root defilements of passion, aggression, and delusion, to defend and aggrandize the “selves” that they think they possess. This action produces results or karma, that become part of who they are. When samsaric beings die, they are subsequently reborn in the same or another realm, in accordance with their karma. Normally this process, and the cycles of pain and pleasure that it entails, goes on without end. The various samsaric worlds are known as “impure realms,” that is, places where the condition of samsara prevails among the inhabitants.

The situation is not hopeless, however, for there are other realms of being that stand outside of samsara. These are the “pure realms,” characterized by enlightenment, the abode of the “realized ones,” those who have attained liberation from samsara and who dwell in various pure lands. These beings are: the celestial buddhas with their various manifestations; the yidams (personal deities), male and female, also called wisdom dakinis and herukas; the great bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara and Tara, who will come to the aid of beings; the dharmapalas (dharma protectors), who watch over and guard the dharma itself and those on the path; the enlightened men and women who have passed beyond this world, and others. These various enlightened ones represent a state of realization that is available to suffering sentient beings. In fact, according to the type of Buddhism followed in Tibet—mahayana Buddhism—the state that they embody is the ultimate and final destiny of all humans and other sentient beings. All sentient beings are on the path that will one day lead to the attainment of the complete and perfect enlightenment of a fully realized buddha.

Although the “home” of the buddhas and high-level bodhisattvas is outside of samsara, they appear in our world to help us enter the path of liberation and follow it to its conclusion. The human Buddha Shakyamuni thus appeared twenty-five hundred years ago, bringing the dharma to this world for the first time and founding a lineage of the study and practice of the teachings. Likewise, the celestial buddhas, bodhisattvas, protectors, dakinis and departed teachers appear in our world in various ways, bringing blessings, protection, and guidance on the path.

The Tibetan cosmology, then, is not meant to present a disembodied, abstract “scientific” picture. It rather shows us the realms of potential experience that make up this cosmos. It describes the various realms of being—only one of which is human—that are possible and exist within the totality of being. Some of these modes of being are defined by the suffering of samsara, while others represent liberation from samsara. Traditional Tibetan cosmology, then, contrasts with modern conceptions of the universe that are essentially rationalistic, gained by ignoring all experiential data except ones that conform to limited physical criteria such as matter, extension and motion, and that can be proven to any observer through logical demonstration. The Tibetan picture has been gained through different means and includes different “data.”

There are now many Tibetan teachers who understand very well the kind of universe that is described by modern science. Their response to our ideas is, “Yes, but all of this is just the human world. There are other realms, and these are outside of and beyond this human realm. You cannot see them by using scientific instruments.”

Moreover, even this realm has more dimensions and subtleties than modern people usually ascribe to their world. In the traditional Tibetan view, the animate and inanimate phenomena of this world are charged with being, life and spiritual vitality. These are conceived in terms of various spirits, ancestors, demigods, demons, and so on. Every river and mountain has its spirit embodiment or inhabitants. Each human habitation has a spiritual presence as part of its own being. As this variety suggests, spirits appear with various levels of development and motivation. Some are malevolent; some are neutral, and others are generally beneficent.

These traditional cosmological perspectives create a uniquely powerful environment for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The boundless temporal and spatial vistas reveal the fragility, brevity and ultimate futility of human life, taken on its own terms. The view of the phenomena of this world as spiritually charged allows intimacy, relationship and mutuality with the relative world. The understanding of samsara as the endless repetition of life followed by death followed by life, all governed by karma, suggests that lasting happiness in the ordinary sense is not attainable. The introduction of buddhahood as standing outside of samsara provides an alternative to this daunting and frightening prospect. The fact that buddhahood is not only available but is the ultimate and final destiny of all instills fundamental optimism and a sense of the value of life. And the limitless time frame in which this can be achieved enables people to relax and to take their spiritual journey at its own pace. In this way, Tibetan Buddhism has achieved the seemingly contradictory goals of revealing the radical inadequacy of samsara, leaving its adherents little option but to look to a spiritual path, while at the same time rousing them to a sense of confidence, joy and well-being at their human condition and its literally infinite possibilities.

To what extent can the contemporary Western Tibetan Buddhist practitioner dispense with some or all of these unseen, nonhuman beings? From the Tibetan point of view, relationships with the unseen world are essential to a full and successful human life. Ignoring one’s relationships with the whole world of unseen spirits and spiritual beings is, in fact, as senseless and counterproductive as ignoring the people and conventions of one’s own immediate human society. It is simply not possible to live in such a way.

Buddhism is normally thought of as a nontheistic tradition, and this raises the question of how such spirits, gods, and deities are to be understood within the Tibetan Buddhist framework. Certainly in Tibetan life, whether it is a question of the malevolent mamos, the potentially beneficent hearth god, the deities of the god realms, or the dharma protectors or tantric yidams, the nonhuman beings are understood at least on one level as more or less independent, objective entities. They are beings with whom one must be in constant relation, even though they are nonhuman and usually not visible.

At the same time, however, from the point of view of the philosophical and meditative tradition, all such nonhuman beings are ultimately seen as aspects of one’s own mind and not separate from it. But what does this actually mean? Frequently, particularly in the West, this standard Buddhist assertion is taken to indicate that such spirits and deities, taken as external beings by ordinary Tibetans, are not really external at all; that in fact they are mistaken projections of psychological states. This, then, becomes a justification for treating them as nonexistent and provides a rationale for jettisoning them from Western adaptations of the tradition. The problem with this approach is that it reflects a misunderstanding of what is meant by the statement that such entities are aspects of mind and inseparable from mind.

The deities are more properly said to be aspects of one’s own innate mind, or reflexes of one’s awareness. For example, the buddhas, although apparently objectively existing beings, are fundamentally nothing other than our own enlightened nature. The protectors are representations of the wrathful and uncompromising energy of our own awareness. And the gurus are objectifications of the teaching and guiding principle as it exists within each of us. In a similar manner, the various samsaric spirits and demons may be seen as embodiments of peripheral states of one’s own mind. These apparently externally existent beings, then, are false bifurcations of the primordial nondual awareness that lies at the basis of all experience.

So far, so good; but here is the really critical point: it is not only the beings of the unseen world that have this status, but all of the phenomena of duality. In the Tibetan view, ourselves, other people, trees, mountains and clouds—indeed all of the phenomena of the entire so-called internal and external universe—are nothing other than false objectifications and solidifications of nondual awareness.

To say this is not, however, to discount their external and “objective” existence within the relative world of apparent duality. The samsaric beings of the six realms, as well as the Buddhist deities existing in the state of nirvana, initially make themselves known to us ordinary, unenlightened people as external, objectively existing beings. In fact, on this level, they can appear as significantly more real, vivid and powerful than the ordinary physical universe that surrounds us. On one level, then, such beings certainly do exist and are important co-inhabitants of our cosmos. Thus to say that they are aspects of mind is not to deny their existence on the relative level. Nor does it obviate our responsibility to deal with them and relate to them on their own level and as they present themselves to us.

What, then, does it mean to say that these unseen beings are all aspects of mind? It means simply that the way we experience and conceive of them has to do with our own psychology and level of awareness. Ultimately, the apparent duality of subject and object is not given in reality. It is a structure that we, out of fear and ignorance, impose on the world. When we see the phenomenal world truly as it is, we realize a level of being that precedes the subject-object split. This is the true nature of “experience,” “awareness,” or “nondual mind,” understood at this point as interchangeable categories. When Tibetans say that the spirits, gods and deities are aspects of mind and nothing other than mind, they mean it in this sense, that their fundamental nature—as indeed the nature of all phenomena—is nondual awareness.

We humans, then, are just one part of a vast, interconnected web of relationships with all other inhabitants of the cosmos, both those still living within delusion and those who are awakened. An awareness of these relationships is critical because, to a very large extent, who we are as humans is defined by this network of relations. From the Tibetan perspective, to live a genuinely human and fruitful life, we need to discover our relation with all these various beings of samsara and beyond, and to act in ways appropriate to our connection. The way we do this is through ritual.

Ritual is action that expresses a relationship. It is the vehicle of communication with another and is itself that communication. In Tibetan Buddhism, ritual is used in relation both to the seen and the unseen worlds, and the essence of Tibetan Buddhism is communication with the awakened ones—departed masters, bodhisattvas, buddhas, and so on. We call them to mind, open our hearts to them, and receive their blessings.

In revered teachers, a state of realization is embodied in human form. In the celestial buddhas and high-level bodhisattvas, however, the embodiment is more ethereal and not within the human realm. Nevertheless it is not only possible but essential that, as we go along the path, we also discover and deepen our sense of communication with these nonmaterial, awakened ones. According to Tibetan tradition, in fact, as we mature, the “sky draws closer to the earth,” so to speak, and the celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas seem more and more our ever-present protectors, mentors, and guides.

One of the most common ritual means for communicating with the realized ones is the sevenfold offering of mahayana Buddhism: one visualizes the being or beings in question, then [1] offers salutation, [2] makes real and imagined good offerings, [3] confesses one’s shortcomings and harm of others, [4] rejoices at the existence of the awakened being or beings who are the beloved object(s) of devotion, [5] requests them to teach, thus expressing one’s openness and longing for instruction, [6] asks them to remain in connection with suffering samsaric beings and not disappear into nirvana, and [7] dedicates whatever merit or goodness one has accumulated to the welfare of all beings. In this simple, brief rite, one makes a link with the transcendent ones, affirming and actualizing a specific kind of relationship with them.

The reason that we can do this in the first place is that the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and departed masters already represent who we most essentially are and must in fact become. This is why, in Tibetan Buddhism, even the most devotional supplication to the most seemingly external being is not finally theistic. For, in truth, we are longing to meet our deepest selves face-to-face, and we are supplicating our own hidden being. The path to this goal is first, to discover our innermost being in the other, the awakened one, and then, through relationship with him or her, gradually to come to awareness of that transcendent nature within ourselves.

      In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many ritual stages along this path to awakening. What they share is visualization. We create a mental picture of a departed teacher, a high-level bodhisattva, or a buddha. Then we carry out a ritual in which we open ourselves and communicate with this being in various ways, ritually participating in his or her awakening. In this way, we cultivate our own awakened state.

This process of visualization is a powerful one. For example, in our ordinary life, what we do not visualize as existing does not exist for us. If we do not see another person as human, then for us their humanity does not exist. The same is that much more true for beings who live in nonmaterial forms outside of samsara. We may be surrounded by buddhas and bodhisattvas all the time, but until they have a shape and a name, we do not see them or have access to a relationship with them. For us they might as well not exist. But the moment we give them a form in our mind and begin to communicate with them, they exist, and their wisdom, compassion, and power can enter into our own systems.

It is the many ritual forms of Tibetan Buddhism that enable us to do this, and within traditional Tibet, the reality of ritual is simply accepted as a matter of course. It is assumed that just as there are forms by which to relate to other human beings, so there are other forms that are used to communicate with the nonhuman and nonmaterial realms.

The status of ritual among Western followers of Tibetan Buddhism is, however, more in question. Many have felt unable to entertain the ideas of reincarnation or of the six realms. For them, many of the traditional Tibetan rituals dealing with other beings and other realms do not make sense. Sometimes this extends to thinking that even talk of nonmaterial buddhas, bodhisattvas and protectors is “symbolic,” and that there is nothing that really corresponds to these designations. In that case, many of the Tibetan liturgies are seen as directed to no real object, but are rather understood as psychological ploys to bring about certain effects.

Even if we Westerners do pay lip service to the traditional Tibetan cosmological ideas, often, as Jeremy Hayward has argued, we remain at heart what he calls “scientific materialists.” In other words, while we may accept the idea of other realms and other beings within and outside of samsara, we do not actually believe in them. Instead, we live as if the world were dead and this reality the only one that exists.

This attitude is reflected in many Westerners’ difficulties with Tibetan ritual. Among Western practitioners, there is frequently a kind of dead feeling in ritual, and many of us fall back on the idea that rote repetition, without any particular engagement or feeling, is sufficient. We fall back, in other words, on attitudes to ritual learned in our upbringing, where simply to be physically present was all that was required. In order to survive the many meaningless rituals we may have been subjected to, we also learned to disengage ourselves psychologically and to occupy our time with thinking about other things. What is missing here is the understanding that ritual is a way of communicating with beings who, on the relative plane, really are there and really are important to us. This lively and compelling sense of ritual is, at present, sometimes hard to come by in Western adaptations of Tibetan Buddhism.

Through ritual, genuinely undertaken, one is led to take a larger view of one’s life and one’s world; one experiences a shift in perspective—sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. This shift feels like a diminishing of one’s sense of isolated individuality and an increase in one’s sense of connectedness with other people, with the nonhuman presences of our realm, and with purposes that transcend one’s usual self-serving motivations.

Ritual is a way of reconnecting with the larger and deeper purposes of life, ones that are oriented toward the general good conceived in the largest sense. Ironically, through coming to such a larger and more inclusive sense of connection and purpose, through rediscovering oneself as a member of a much bigger and more inclusive enterprise, one feels that much more oneself and grounded in one’s own personhood. Through ritual, one’s energy and motivation are roused and mobilized so that one can better fulfill the responsibilities, challenges and demands that life presents.

Adapted from Indestructible Truth by Reginald A. Ray. By permission of Shambhala Publications. © Reginald A. Ray.

Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. He is the author of Buddhist Saints in India (Oxford University Press). This article is adapted from his new book, Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism, from Shambhala Publications.

On the Importance of Relating to Unseen Beings, Reginald A. Ray, Shambhala Sun, January 2001. 

A Roshi on the Row Print

A Roshi on the Row

Kobutsu Malone takes Shodo Harada Roshi on an unprecedented visit to Arkansas death row, where two condemned men now practice Zen. One of them, Damien Echols — subject of the hbo documentary “Paradise Lost”— is believed by many to be innocent.

     This story begins, in a way, with the execution of Jusan Frankie Parker. Actually, it begins long before he was executed, in his more than eight years of intense practice while he was on death row of the Arkansas Department of Corrections in the prison known as Tucker-Max. This story is about the legacy of this remarkable human being, himself a killer, who by his own efforts transcended his karma through the practice of zazen while awaiting the executioner’s needle.

      Frankie Parker affected many lives from his cell, both inside and outside of prison. Our present story involves two condemned prisoners who were inspired by him, and the abbot of a three-hundred-year-old Japanese Rinzai Zen Monastery .

     I first met Damien Echols and Jack Jones on August 9, 1996, the day after Frankie Parker was executed. That morning, I had gone to the mortuary to perform a chanting ceremony over Frankie’s body and remove his mala and rakusu before his body was placed in the oven for cremation. I was really shaken when I lifted his head up to remove the rakusu; his head was stone-cold and lifeless, the same head I had held in a loving parting embrace the night before. Immediately after his body was placed in the oven, I did three prostrations on the floor of the mortuary. I will always remember the gritty feeling on my knees and hands from the ash and bone fragments of previous cremations.

      Back at Tucker-Max, I was taken into the warden’s office and given Frankie’s ordination robe. Warden Morgan was accommodating and he gave me permission to visit with the men on death row and reassure them that Frankie had died in a brave and dignified manner. Being “on the row” was a new experience for me. I moved from cell to cell, visiting with each man, shaking hands, exchanging a few words. Many of them were very pleased to see me and expressed their condolences. Some cried openly. Passing Frankie’s empty cell, I could see for the first time where he had lived, where he had written us, where he had practiced.

      Frankie had specifically asked me to see Damien Echols, Jack Jones and a few others. Damien’s is a famous death penalty case, involving an horrific crime and a controversial trial. He was convicted of leading two other teenagers in the brutal murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. The case has been the subject of two documentary films, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills “and this fall’s “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations”, which raise profound doubts about the guilt of those convicted and the fairness of the trials.

      I found Damien standing in the middle of the cell, his long black hair cascading over his shoulders. I immediately felt his intensity and presence, and I was struck by how young he was, very close in age to my own son. Damien appeared distracted, obviously upset over Frankie’s death, but he was cordial and pleased to see me.

      Meeting Jack Jones was a moment of real import. He had committed a rape and murder, but his deep sense of connection to Frankie was obvious. Although I did not hear from Damien for some time, Jack and I developed an on-going correspondence over the following months, and periodically I would send him some Buddhist books and literature. Jack shared them with Damien and over time Damien developed an interest in Buddhism. When I visited Tucker-Max last year, I was amazed at how Damien had changed and how open he had become to the dharma. Our correspondence increased and we have had an intense relationship ever since.

     I spoke to many people about Frankie Parker and the experience of witnessing his murder in the Arkansas “death chamber.” My friend Kyogen Carlson, abbot of the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon, talked about Frankie to the Venerable Shodo Harada Roshi, abbot of Sogen-Ji monastery in Okayama, Japan. Harada Roshi was deeply moved by Frankie’s story and he repeated it often in lectures and formal teishos.

      It was through this connection that Harada Roshi invited me to Sogen-Ji to teach and also offer some lectures on the death penalty for the Japanese people. In return for this profound honor, I invited Harada Roshi to visit the Arkansas death row to serve as the preceptor for a Jukai lay ordination ceremony for Jack Jones and Damien Echols. For almost six months I corresponded with Harada Roshi about his visit to the Arkansas death row, or pilgrimage as he referred to it. There were countless difficulties to overcome but arrangements were successfully made with the prison authorities. On September 19, Harada Roshi was given unprecedented access to the Arkansas death row.

     The day of the visit, Harada Roshi’s flight was due in at the Memphis airport at 11:45 AM. We wouldn’t have much time to rent a car and then drive the 156 miles to Tucker,  Arkansas, the former plantation town which is home to the Tucker-Max Unit. I packed my “traveling zendo” kit, a black detail case that I’d dragged into dozens of penitentiaries over the years. It contained a Buddha image, bell and clappers, altar cloths, incense burner with makeshift polyethylene cover fastened with a rubber band, incense, charcoal and other supplies used for performing various ceremonies.

      I downed coffee with my compadre Dakota Rowland, not a Buddhist but someone with truly remarkable intuitive insight. She, a revolutionary social justice worker and prison abolitionist. I, Irish-American renegade Zen priest with a checkered past. Both of us broke. We were unable to rent a vehicle due to lack of funds or a credit card, so we had to take the airport shuttle and rely on our friends from Japan to take care of the vehicle rental.

      We arrived at the gate with about twenty minutes to spare and I was feeling nervous. I had never met Harada Roshi and had very little information about him, only a few descriptions from some friends who had studied with him. Universally, they had told me that Harada Roshi was a very powerful teacher, known as a “master’s master.”

      Finally Harada Roshi walked through the ramp door, and my apprehension evaporated instantly at the sight of him. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and bowed deeply as he approached. Finishing my bow, I looked straight at him and found him smiling with great intensity. I could feel a tremendous warmth emanating from him. He shook my hand American-style, said “Hello,” and told me how pleased he was to see me. I sensed immediately a deep karmic connection with him. We were all smiling and felt good about being together, preparing to travel into the “belly of the beast.”

      Leaving Memphis in our rented van, the first town we encountered in Arkansas was West Memphis, where the three eight-year-old boys had been murdered in a wooded area just a few yards from the I-40. As we approached the area known as the “Robin Hood Hills” woods, I pointed it out to our guests.

      Dakota had a lot to say about the history of slavery and oppression that permeated the South and spoke on these topics as the miles of Mississippi Delta farmland rolled by. This conversation led naturally to the blatant racism of the present prison system, the spread of “private” prisons run by big corporations, the death penalty, and the horrific incarceration rate in America. Harada Roshi spoke about the death penalty in Japan, the secrecy surrounding its application, and the isolation of death row prisoners.

      As we entered the town of Tucker, we encountered a sign informing us that we were entering a penitentiary area and should not pick up hitchhikers. As we came into view of the Tucker-Max facility, we were assaulted by the sight of modern slavery—rows of prisoners clad in “prison whites” toiling with hoes at the roadside, overseen by armed guards on horses.

      We were met at the reception building by Chaplain Norman McFall. Each one of us had to walk through a full-body metal detector and the items in my “Zendo kit” were examined and checked off against the master list I had provided months before. All was in order and we were pleased that there was no objection to bringing in our disposable cameras.

      Tucker-Max is a relatively modern prison, with air conditioning in the cell blocks and general areas. This is a far cry from many other prison facilities in the South, in which the heat sometimes reaches a hundred and twenty degrees in the upper tiers. As our group walked down the ten-meter-wide main corridor toward the “Five Pod,” death row, we were scrutinized by prisoners and guards alike. How strange we must have appeared—Roshi, Chisan, the female Zen priest serving as his translator, and I in monastic garb, and Dakota in a bright, flowered, short-sleeved shirt. Dakota was concentrating on acknowledging as many prisoners as possible. Just by smiling, waving and making eye contact, she was reaching out in solidarity to them. Their response was in-kind and appreciative. Whether it’s through a formal Buddhist ceremony or just a smile, the indomitable human spirit shines through.

      We arrived at the death row pod. We were now in “the belly of the belly of the beast”—three tiers of steel cages designed without compromise to hold human beings in isolation from the community and each other. I turned to Roshi and told him that every man in this unit had been condemned to death. I pointed out Jusan Frankie Parker’s cell, where he had lived and practiced for so many years. We saw Jack first, standing at his cell door, wearing his wagesa refuge sash and smiling. Looking around, we spotted Damien on the second tier at the far end of the unit.

      The guards began their preparations, handcuffing Jack and Damien before opening their cell doors. The prisoners were brought out to the pod floor, where leg irons were applied to their ankles and double-security lock boxes were placed over their already double-locked handcuffs. I was pleased to be able to introduce both men to Harada Roshi, Dakota and Chisan. Damien and Jack bowed deeply to us all and were profoundly moved. They had both been looking forward to this day for many, many months.

   We were allowed to enter a very small chapel room situated just off the floor level of death row. Damien and Jack had brought their Sutra books with them for the ceremony; I made a brief introductory statement and our meeting began. Jack presented Harada Roshi with a beautiful hand-made box covered in Japanese-style pen and ink drawings. Damien presented a hand-made box to me and gave both Roshi and me rosaries as gifts.

      I asked them, “What do you think, how do you feel?” Jack replied to Roshi, “I am very, very nervous. I don’t know what to say to you because I am just so nervous.”

      Damien, addressing Roshi, said, “I have been waiting so long to talk to you. I am so sorry because I wanted to ask this and that, a hundred questions, and now that I am with you my head is a complete blank. I am so sorry, please excuse me.”

      Jack then asked Roshi, “What do you think of this place?” Roshi responded, “This place has an incredible sharpness. There is a very concentrated atmosphere here.” Jack said, “Yes, this is a very concentrated place. Every single day in here, every instant, is this whole world.”

      Roshi responded, “Yes, I have thirty students, and for all of them, the most important point is each and every moment being the only moment there is.” To which Jack answered, “Yes, for us there is no time whatsoever here. I read many books but there is nothing in those books which compares to the depth that is in this one moment. It is because of my certain death that I have been able to realize this. If it were not for the fact that I am in these circumstances, this would never have become clear to me. Every day I do zazen and it is the most important part of my day. Every day I do zazen on my bed facing the wall.”

      Just prior to leaving the small chapel room, I asked Chaplain McFall if it would be possible for Harada Roshi to take a look in Jack’s cell so that he could see how he lived. The Chaplain asked the ranking guard and we were granted permission to visit Jack’s cell, which was close to the chapel room at ground level.

      As we walked over to the cell, I jokingly mentioned to Roshi that we had arranged for him to have an extended visit, and gestured for him to enter first. He responded to my joke with his broad smile. We entered Jack’s cell and looked around. It was a small space with a narrow vertical slit window which admitted some natural light. There was a narrow bunk bed with a thin mattress and a writing desk with built-in chair next to it. The front wall of the cell had a small stainless steel toilet/sink appliance. It enabled the commode to be used with the prisoner facing into the cell but still enabled anyone outside the cell to observe the prisoner at all times. There was no corner of the cell which could not be seen from the barred cell door.

      Jack had a small shrine set up on his desk and mounted on a piece of cardboard over his desk were photographs of his two boys and pictures of a woman he writes to in Holland. We all looked at the photos and Jack explained who they were. It was, I am sure, a truly unusual event to be taking place on death row. Two large guards stood by at the door of the cell, keeping an eye on everything that was taking place. Finishing our tour of death row, we returned through the security sally port to the main hall. My black bag “Zendo kit” had been placed in the visiting room for the Jukai ceremony. We were admitted through a barred gate and Damien and Jack were escorted in. There were windows on both sides of the long visiting room and there were people we had not seen before behind them, watching us as we entered.

      I chose one of the visit cubicles directly on the spot where Frankie had received Jukai four and a half years earlier, and began setting up an altar for the ceremony. I had purchased a supply of extra fine jinko, an extremely expensive and rare natural wood incense. Our altar consisted of a carved wooden Buddha, a ceramic incense burner, a ceramic water offering bowl, a candlestick and white candle, a small hand bell and a larger inkin meditation bell, and two shiki-shi calligraphic pieces done by Harada Roshi as gifts for Jack and Damien. Harada Roshi had also brought from Japan two beautifully made rakusus, inscribed with their new dharma names. I had made rings for the vestments from pieces of spaltered maple harvested from the forest surrounding Dai Bosatsu Zendo, my home temple in Livingston Manor, New York.

      I gave a Jukai exhortation written by the Venerable Eido Roshi based on the Dharmapada. (It was a dog-eared copy of the Dharmapada, thrown with contempt on the floor of an isolation cell in “the hole,” that with its first reading changed Frankie Parker’s life so profoundly.) Jack, Damien, Roshi and I offered incense and we chanted the Purification, the Three Fundamental Precepts, the Three Refuges, and the Ten Precepts.

      Harada Roshi explained the dharma names he was giving to the two men and presented each with a black rakusu. Damien received the name Koson, meaning “Searching for the Light.” Jack received the name Dainin, meaning “Great Patient Forbearance.” We chanted The Four Great Vows for All in Japanese and in English, I made a closing remark, and our ceremony was complete.

      As the others gathered around Roshi afterward and talked, I took Damien and Jack aside for a few personal words. This was the first opportunity I had had in more than eight months to see them in private. We walked to the end of the corridor, being certain to remain in the sight of the four guards, and I chatted with each one for a few minutes. I asked them to write an account of the encounter while it was fresh in their minds.

      Chaplain McFall had many questions for Roshi. He asked why we shaved our heads. Roshi responded, “To remind us that we really want nothing.” I couldn’t resist rubbing my own head and commenting, “How come I still want a Harley Davidson?” We all laughed.

      It was hard saying goodbye. Jack and Damien both bowed deeply and embraced Harada Roshi as we parted.

      On the way out of the unit we were delayed waiting for a security gate to open. We noticed the prison shoeshine shop and saw a black prisoner intently shining an officer’s boot. I said to him, “Shining the man’s boots, huh?” He said, “Yep!” and I said to him, “Be sure to give them a spit and polish shine—heavy on the spit.” We all cracked up over this, no harm was done, the boots got shined, and three people experienced a brief moment of solidarity. We left the facility, the hoe squads long brought in and locked down. We headed for a meal, and got back on the road to Memphis. Our trip back was quieter. Roshi took notes in the back; I drove  the miles of darkened interstate. The next morning at the airport, Harada Roshi said to me that he would come back. I felt relieved, because I knew he had been affected by what he had seen and that through this man true dharma would flow into “the belly of the beast.”

      The remarkable teaching of this experience was that there is an alternative to death row. Death rows and prisons do not exist in a vacuum. When we ourselves do not live in a state of sustainable harmony with each other and our surroundings, we perpetuate oppression. Harada Roshi’s pilgrimage to death row is an invitation to all of us to “Wake up!”, to look deeply and see things clearly, to walk on the path of the awakened state of mind in solidarity with our sisters and brothers.

      Words cannot convey the intense personal pain, degradation, torment and torture that are experienced daily in our prisons. Inevitably, some of you reading these words will at some point find yourselves in prison, experiencing the horror firsthand. Any one of us could find ourselves accused, convicted and sent to prison at any time. So let’s rid ourselves of any notion that it’s “them” in prison, and “us” out here. Ain’t like that.

Kobutsu Malone, Zenji, is a Rinzai Zen priest of the Gempo-Soen-Eido lineage. He is a co-founder of The Engaged Zen Foundation, which fosters meditative practice in prisons and develops monastic alternative sentencing/post-release programs. The Engaged Zen Foundation can be contacted at Post Office Box 700, Ramsey, NJ 07446.


A Roshi on the Row, Kobutsu Malone, Shambhala Sun, January 2001.

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