Playing with fire
Tibetan Buddhism contains many teachings about the subtle energies of the body that are focused on the chakras or energy centres. Tibetan Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher Reginald Ray told Dharma Life about the dangers of meditating on the chakras
Dharma Life: Can you explain the chakra system as understood by Tibetan Buddhism and tantra?
Reginald Ray: According to tantra, Enlightenment is fundamentally and originally present in the body. By putting one's awareness in the body you find that the further down you go the more primordial, unconditioned and unmanifest is the energy you encounter. The chakras begin at the perineum, which is the most primordial level of awareness, and as you go upwards they are more connected with expression. At the navel there is a sense of the earth, stability and equanimity; at the heart is a feeling of warmth and compassion; the throat is about communication, expression and connection; and the head is less a conceptual centre than a place where the energy reaches a crescendo. So the different chakras have very different feels.
Are the chakras 'real' or 'symbolic'? How do they relate to western ideas about physiology?
Tibetan tradition says that we have different experiences of the body depending on our level of realisation. One experience is that the body is a physical reality with form and shape, but from the Tibetan viewpoint that 'experience' is a conceptualised interpretation rather than direct experience. When you look in meditation at the literal experience of embodiment you discover that there is nothing solid to our body. So, to answer the question 'are the chakras real', I would say, after many years of exploring my body in meditation, that one sees that the body isn't real as a substantial, solid entity. Once you let go of your conceptual ideas of the body you discover that chakras comprise an ever-changing energetic body.
The lower chakras are popularly connected with raw physical and sexual energy, is that correct?
That is a New Age understanding, which has little or nothing to do with what the chakras actually are. Although the chakras' energy is empty, we identify them with other things we know - like sexuality. But that's an interpretation. Fundamentally the lower chakra is a place of bliss, warmth and pure energy.
We need to approach this area with care. At Naropa in Colorado I have often met people who have been taught kundalini without the proper preparation and they report unmanageable experiences of depression, confusion, or wildness in their energy. They don't have the tools or the knowledge to handle these extreme mental states.
How do you use the understanding that comes from exploring chakras in teaching meditation at introductory level?
In my teaching I emphasise that Enlightenment is found in the body. This draws on Dzogchen, where you are told that when you put your awareness in the body in the right way, you encounter your awakened state. I also point out that through meditation we realise that awareness is not located in the head, it is in the whole body. I don't talk about chakras specifically until people become Vajrayana students - because of the New Age connotations - but things come up in their experience that correspond to what we think of as the chakras. I encourage students to explore these experiences for themselves. Then I work with them individually, because different issues come up with each person.
One student found her throat was terribly constricted. I saw that she also had trouble expressing herself and felt she hadn't found her voice. So she has been trying to relax and be more in her body, and that is melting some of the hesitation about her voice. Other people are very 'mental' and have little connection with the earth, and they tell me they have no feeling below their heart. I give them practices of breathing into the lower belly and trying to develop awareness there. That seems to help them feel more grounded and to include more earthy aspects of life in their general awareness. So at this level we are talking not so much about meditating on chakras as redressing an imbalance.
People who are a little more established in meditation often start to experience the energies of the body. Is it that when you become calm energy is released?
I wouldn't say released. In the West we have no real language for talking about this - and even the Tibetan material is very stereotyped. I think the idea of releasing energy is based on a very western psychological way of thinking where energy is dammed up. I'd rather say there is a natural flow of energy in our bodies and lives that is stifled by the ego. When we start to meditate on and within the body, the imposition of an ego structure on the body, the energy system and awareness begins to soften, and our energy flows more naturally. The Vajrayana says the body's natural state is blissful.
Do ideas like these exist in other meditative systems, and does the chakra system add something particular?
I suspect all of this is in Theravada Buddhism, especially the forest tradition: although you'd have to look for it in practices that are not public. But Tibetan Buddhism derives from later Indian Buddhism, which developed a tremendous wealth of techniques for opening up the wisdom of the body. The earlier traditions focused on other things and laid the foundations. Later tantric traditions made certain aspects of meditative experience more explicit and passed on this understanding through texts and oral transmission. So the Tibetan tradition offers a much higher level of differentiation in its teachings about the body. These traditions were taught by people who spent their lives in retreat and found out many things that come down to us as the tantric teachings on chakras.
Could you explain the view that underlies tantric practices?
The tantric tradition is about working with the inseparability of form and emptiness, which is the open domain of one's awareness. In the course of the path one discovers deeper and deeper levels of one's own non-existence, and inseparable from that in the experience of meditation is the arising of energy.
Human beings are characterized by our physical embodiment and a sense of self and other. In this human context, there are two places where you can work with form and emptiness. There is the 'outer mandala' or outer practice: visualising Buddhas, doing mantras and visualising the world as an expression of Buddhas. You do a lot of that first - perhaps for 10 or 20 years. But at a certain point people start to discover that the issue of form and emptiness is represented in the most subtle levels of their bodies. So the chakras are birth-places of form and emptiness. There are different birth-places in one's system and, as you meditate and relate to the chakras in different ways, you are working with different domains of energy. The practices are a gateway and then you're on your own.
Visualising a Buddha also involves imagining a 'seed syllable' in one's heart that symbolises the Buddha's wisdom. How is this connected with chakras?
The seed syllable in the heart represents the primordial energy that gives birth to everything. The practitioner discovers a level of form and emptiness that is at the root of our entire life. In Tibetan Buddhism the most common seed syllable is hum, which is a resonance at the foundation of our being. When you touch that you are the Buddha you are visualising. We visualise the Buddha externally because we need a different form from the person we conceive ourselves to be. The figure connects us with whatever qualities are needed in the world. As long as we are identified with the Buddha as embodied in the seed syllable, whatever we do in the world is flawless and helpful. That implies being with others in a completely naked fearless and accurate way.
Beyond this level are the esoteric inner practices. Can you talk about these?
You can talk about them in general, but Tibetan tradition maintains it is better not to expose untrained people to the actual techniques, because they can mess you up when attempted without the proper training. They are ways of contacting the energy domains the chakras represent in a much more naked way than humans normally experience. As human beings we never really understand directly the energy of love or expression, or whatever. Our experience of them is filtered through a highly developed process of ego: desires, aims and so on. Sexuality is the one energy that can break through, which is why people are so obsessed with it. It is the one aspect of their life where they have to let go.
In working with the chakras we remove the coverings of our energy system and meet our energy much more directly. When ego templates are stripped away we are left, for example, with the spontaneous outpouring of love for other people. The reason we work with chakras in Tibetan Buddhism is to actualise the Bodhisattva Vow of saving all beings. We have to realise the great compassion of the Buddha, where there is no impediment between the natural compassion of the energetic body and other people.
What is special about that kind of compassion?
When we have an idea of how to help someone it usually has as much to do with ourselves as to do with them. But a realised person's energy arises spontaneously from emptiness in a way that is absolutely accurate in terms of what the other person needs. However, that expression of compassion pays no attention to social conventions, and it often comes out in ways that seem unconventional or outrageous. That is called Crazy Wisdom. Trungpa Rinpoche, who was in that tradition, was so naked and direct that it could be truly terrifying to be around him. The more you work with inner yoga in retreat, the more you are unconstrained by what people expect.
It's risky. One meets many people who have done these practices, and after a while they say, 'I don't think I am going to do this any more.' If they kept going they would have to be so different. I respect that - we live in a very structured conventional society, and what happens to people who achieve that level of realisation? It's not as if you can do the practices and then go out and have a normal life. So I don't encourage all my students to do them, and just a handful are practising them now. That is appropriate.
Do these issues affect every practitioner or is there something particularly confronting about the tantric approach?
They affect every practitioner. According to Buddhism the whole process of enlightenment is making the unconscious conscious. If we take Jung's model, we can say that 99% of our awareness is unconscious, and Tibetan tradition says that the unconscious is incarnated in our physical body. When you bring awareness to your body - your lower belly or your heart centre - you open a channel to the unconscious, which is physical tissues and bones. The process in Vajrayana Buddhism and its work with chakras isn't different from what other practitioners go through, but there is a high intensity when you work with the inner yogas and the chakras.
How has this practice affected you personally?
From a certain point of view it has ruined my life. I am not a person I would have recognised 10 years ago; these practices fundamentally shake you up and show where you are holding back and where you are trying to use spirituality as a subtle way of keeping it all together. It is very challenging, but I tell myself, 'you may as well give it a go'.
Chogyam Trungpa used to say, 'If you can possibly avoid the spiritual life you should do so'. It takes you to a place where your ego is shaken and undermined as it is challenged by the fire of awareness, so you need to realise what's at stake when you step onto the path. We are talking about real spirituality now, not conventional Buddhism and people who want to feel good with a little meditation. We are talking about engaging with Dharma practice at the deepest level.
In my own practice I find that the more I touch the open, empty, vast domain of the unborn mind and awareness, the more energy arises as a natural outgrowth. The energy is challenging - it takes you apart - and that's why the tantric path is considered so radical and quick. The more profound the emptiness the more powerful the energy that arises. That energy has nothing to do with ego, so it's really like being in a fire, and it burns you up.
The more open you are, the more fundamental uncertainty you feel about life and death. You have no home to call your own, quite literally. That takes you in the direction of greater presence, and life become becomes more difficult because you are more open to its actual nature and how astoundingly beautiful or horrific it is. At the same time you become more helpful and stronger because you aren't trying to create some secure nest. Then there is a sense of living out of the Buddha-nature rather than some ego point of view. Your whole life is at stake moment by moment. I regard myself as at the beginning of that process, but I can see it as a trend in myself and others.
Reginald Ray teaches at Naropa University and the Dharma Ocean Foundation in Crestone, Colorado (dharmaocean.org). His latest books include The Secret of the Vajra World: the tantric Buddhism of Tibet and In the Presence of Masters