Crazy Wisdom


by Chogyam Trungpa


The Six Realms of Being

The Bardo of Meditation

The Bardo of Birth

The Bardo of Illusory Body

The Bardo of Dreams

The Bardo of Existence

The Bardo of Death

The Lonely Journey

From seminar’s in
Allenspark, Colorado
Karme Choling


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Chapter 2


Generally there is the basic space to operate, in terms of creative process, whether you are confused or whether you are awake. That basic space acts as the fundamental ground for the idea of bardo. Many of you may also have heard about the development of ego, which is exactly the same pattern as the operation of bardo. The experience of bardo is also operating on the basis of that evolution of ego. But the discovery or sudden glimpse, or the experience of bardo, is a momentary thing, impermanent. So fundamentally we might say that the teaching of bardo is closer to the concept of impermanence.

Bardo is that sudden glimpse of experience which is constantly developing. We try to hold on to it, and the moment we try to hold on to it, it leaves us, because of the very fact that we are trying to hold on to it, which is trying to give birth to it. You see something happen and you would like to give birth to it. You would like to start properly in terms of giving birth, but once you begin to prepare this birth, you realize you can’t give birth anymore. You lost your child already by trying officially to adopt it. That is the kind of bardo experience which happens in everyday life. It is operating in terms of space as well as in terms of ego.

Bardo is generally associated with samsaric mind, not necessarily with the awakened state of being. There is a background of bardo experience, which is like a river. A river does not belong to the other shore or to this shore; it is just a river, a no-man’s-land. Such a no-man’s land, or river, has different characteristics: it may be a turbulent river or a gently flowing river. There are different categories and types of rivers—our basic situation, where we are at, our present psychological state of being—which make the bardo experience more outstanding. If there is an impressive little island, by being in the middle of a turbulent river, it becomes more outstanding. An island in the middle of a gently flowing river is also more impressive and outstanding. At the same time, the shape and condition of the island itself will be completely different, depending on the river and the background. Therefore it seems necessary to go through these patterns, which are called the six types of world: the world of the gods, the world of the jealous gods, the world of human beings, the world of animals, the world of hungry ghosts, and the world of hell. Before we get into the bardo experience, it is very important to know these particular types of worlds. They are not purely mythical stories or concepts of heaven and hell; they are also psychological pictures of heaven and hell and all the rest.

We could begin with heaven. The notion of heaven is a state of mind which is almost meditative. Heavenly psychology is based on a state of absorption in something, or spiritual materialism. It is complete absorption, which automatically, of course, means indulging ourselves in a particular pleasurable situation—not necessarily material pleasure, but more likely spiritual pleasure within the realm of ego. It’s like the notion of the four jhana states. Traditionally, the 33 god realms are based on different degrees of jhana states, up to the point of a completely formless jhana state containing both experiencer and experiencing. But if there is an experiencer and also an experience, then that experience must be either pleasurable or painful—nothing else could exist beyond those limits. It could be an extremely sophisticated experience, seemingly transcending pain and pleasure, but there is still a very subtle and sophisticated experience of some thing going on. The thingness and the awareness of self continue. That is the realm of the formless gods—limitless space; limitless consciousness; not that, not this; not not that, not not this—the full state of absorption in a formless state. Other states as well are inclined toward that state of mind, but they become less sophisticated as the experience is on a more and more gross level. The first state, therefore, the realm of spiritual pleasure, is so extremely pleasurable that you can almost afford to relax. But somehow the relaxation doesn’t happen, because there’s an experiencer and an experience.

That is the realm of the gods. And in that god realm, as you can imagine, in such a state of spiritual materialism, there is a weakness. The intensity of your experience is based on collecting, possessing further experiences. That means that fundamentally your state of mind is based on give and take. You are developing immunity to temptation and fascination in order to seek pleasure and try to grasp hold of the pleasure more definitely.

As that state of mind develops in terms of the six realms of the world, we are talking about regressing from that sophisticated state of spiritual materialism in the world of heaven down to the world of hell—regressing. Such a state of pleasure in the world of heaven, that complete meditative absorption into the jhana states, automatically brings up temptations and questions. You begin to get tired of being extremely refined, and you want to come down to some raggedness. Jealousy or envy or dissatisfaction with your present state comes up automatically as an obvious next step, which then leads to the realm of the jealous gods, the asuras.

The realm of the asuras is highly energetic, almost in contrast to that state of spiritual absorption. It’s as if somebody had been far away a long time from their civilization, in the middle of a desert island, and they suddenly had a chance to come down to the nearest city. Automatically, their first inspiration, of course, would be to try to be extremely busy and entertain themselves, indulging in all sorts of things. In that way the energetic quality of busyness in the realm of the asuras develops.

Even that experience of tremendous energy, driving force, trying to grasp, trying to hold on to external situations, is not enough. Somehow you need not only rushing, but you have to pick something up, taste it, swallow it, digest it. That kind of intimacy is needed. You begin to feel tired of rushing too hard, too much, and you begin to think in terms of grasping and taking. You would like to take advantage of the situation and the intimacy of possessing, the sexual aspect, the tenderness. You try to use it, chew it. That is the world of human beings. (In this case, when we talk of the world of human beings or the world of animals, it is not necessarily human life or animal life literally, as conventionally known. It’s the psychological aspect.) So the human realm is built on passion and desire.

Somehow, indulging ourselves in passion and desire is again not quite enough—we need more and more. You realize that you can come down to a more gross level, a cruder level. And realizing that, you begin to yearn for much more real and obvious experience as a way of putting into effect your emotional need. But at the same time, you are tired of relationships. You are tired of relating to experience in terms of pleasure, and you begin to find all sorts of facets of your experience are involved with just that. You begin to look for something simpler, a more instinctive way of dealing with things, in which you don’t have to look for the complicated patterns of that passion, that desire. Then you are reduced to the animal level. Everything is put into practice in an instinctive way rather than by applying intellectual or emotional frustrations as a way of getting or possessing something.

Then, again, such a state of mind, in which you are purely acting on the impulsive or instinctive level of the animal realm, is not gross enough. You begin to feel that there is a tremendous weakness in your state of being, in such animal mentality. You don’t want to give away anything, but you would like to take more. So far, all experience—from the realm of the gods down to the animal level—has been a kind of exchange constantly, a balancing act or play. And somehow you begin to realize and come to the conclusion that exchanging or commuting between two situations, even at the blind level, is too exhausting. Then you look for a highly crude form of maintaining yourself. That is the world of the hungry ghosts. You don’t want to give away anything, but you just want to take. And since you do not want to give anything away, since you would purely like to take in, the mentality of that world becomes an extremely hungry one, because unless you give, you won’t get anything. And the more you get, the more you want to receive. In other words, you do not want to give or share any experience. There’s so much hunger and thirst, me-ness, unwillingness to give an inch, or even one fraction of a moment, to relate with the world outside. So the hungry ghost realm is the height of poverty.

Ultimately that sense of poverty leads to aggression. You not only do not want to give anything away, but you would like to destroy that which reminds you of giving. That is the ultimate world of hell, or naraka, an instant and extremely powerful state of aggression or hatred.

All these six states, these six different aspects of the world, are the rivers in which the bardo experience is taking shape. In terms of the realm of the gods, it’s a very dreamlike quality. The realm of hell is very aggressive and definite. It would be good to think about that process of the six types of world and become familiar with those different states of mind before we get into bardo experience itself. That would be very helpful. Having already developed that ground, we can pinpoint the different experiences of bardo and fit them into these different types of rivers, samsaric rivers. It would be much easier to work on that level.And strangely enough, these experiences of the six realms—gods, jealous gods, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell—are space, different versions of space. It seems intense and solid, but in actual fact it isn’t at all. They are different aspects of space—that’s the exciting or interesting part. In fact, it is completely open space, without any colors or any particularly solid way of relating. That is why they have been described as six types of consciousness. It is pure consciousness rather than a solid situation—it almost could be called unconsciousness rather than even consciousness. The development of ego operates completely at the unconscious level, from one unconscious level to another unconscious level. That is why these levels are referred to as loka, which means “realm” or “world.” They are six types of world. Each is a complete unit of its own. In order to have a world, you have to have an atmosphere; you have to have space to formulate things. So the six realms are the fundamental space through which any bardo experience operates. Because of that, it is possible to transmute these spaces into six types of awakened state, or freedom.

STUDENT: Can you be in more than one type of world at the same time?

TR: With momentum the worlds always change. But it seems that there is one particular governing factor.

S: When you’re in one of these worlds, can you remember another one?

TR: Well, you have the instinct of the other one. That’s why you can move from one experience to another experience.

S: By your own will?

TR: Not necessarily by your own will, but you sense that you know something. For instance, dogs occasionally forget that they are dogs. They almost think they’re human beings taking part in human society.

S: These worlds of the bardo, are they real, or are they mind-manufactured?

TR: That’s a very heavy question: What is real? It is very difficult to distinguish 100% real in any case.

S: Does it make any difference if these take place only in the mind or in reality?

TR: Well, mind operates realistically.

S: Does it make any difference whether they are actually acted out?

TR: Well, they are acted out, of course, but that activity is questionable—whether it is purely action for the sake of action or whether it is inspired by the mind. The point is that once you are in any of these realms, you are completely immersed in it. You can’t help showing the internal impressions of it. You are completely submerged into that kind of experience. It is so living and so real. It is almost confusing whether the experience of hell, for instance, is external hell or internal hell, purely in your mind. At the time, you can’t distinguish whether you are just thinking or whether you’ve been made to think that way. And I don’t think you can avoid acting at all. If you are nervous, for instance, much as you try not to act nervous, there will still be some signs of nervousness.

S: But take passion, for instance: you can restrain your action, but you can’t restrain your thinking.

TR: You can. At a certain gross level there are different ways of putting out passion. Passion is not sexual passion alone at all, there are many kinds: one particular desire can be replaced by all sorts of other things. You see, what generally happens is that if you don’t want to reveal completely your full state of being, quite conveniently you tend to find ways of interpreting that in order to get satisfaction in all sorts of ways.

S: So whether you act on it or not, you’re in that world?

TR: Yes, at that time you’re in that world, and action happens.

S: And repressing it doesn’t change the fact?

TR: No, you always find a way of doing it.

S: I sense, when you talk about transmuting the six realms of samsara into the six realms of the awakened state, that the six worlds are to be avoided or worked through into something else. Is that a good way to think about it?

TR: I don’t think replacing them with something else would help. That doesn’t seem to be the point. The point is that within that realm of intensity there is the absence of that intensity as well—otherwise intensity couldn’t exist, couldn’t happen, couldn’t operate. Intensity must develop in some kind of space, some kind of environment. That basic environment is the transcendental aspect.

S: There’s no sense in leaving the world of hell behind, transmuting it into something which excludes hell?

TR: No, then you go through the realms again and again. You see, you start from the world of heaven, come down to hell, get tired of it, and go back up to heaven. And you come down again and again—or the other way around. That’s why it is called samsara, which means “whirlpool.” You are continually running around and around and around. If you try to find a way out by running, by looking for an alternative, it doesn’t happen at all.

S: Does it make any sense to look for a way out?

TR: It’s more like a way in, rather than a way out.

S: Were you ever in the hell world yourself? Have you yourself ever experienced the hell world?

TR: Definitely, yes.

S: What do you do?

TR: I try to remain in the hell world.

S: What is the basic ground that allows one to enter completely into that state and yet be completely out of that state at the same time?

TR: The point seems to be that the hell realm, or whatever realm may be, is like the river, and the bardoexperience out of that is the island. So you could almost say that the bardo experience is the entrance to the common ground.

S: Is it the key to that experience?

TR: You could say key, but that is making a more than necessary emphasis.

S: So it’s like the high point or peak.

TR: Yes. Yes.

S: You spoke yesterday of the ground or canvas on which experience is painted. How does that relate to the river and the island?

TR: That’s a different metaphor altogether. In this case, the canvas had never known colors yet, it’s an open canvas. Even if you paint on the canvas, it remains white, fundamentally speaking. You could scrape off the paint.

S: I still don’t see how it relates to the gulf between the ground and the experience.

TR: The experience is, I suppose, realizing that the turbulent quality purely happens on the surface, so to speak. So you are not rushing to try to solve the problem of turbulence, but you are diving in—in other words, fearlessness. Complete trust in confusion, so to speak. Seeing the confused quality as the truth of its own reality. Once you begin to develop the confident and fearless understanding of confusion as being true confusion, then it is no longer threatening. That is the ground. You begin to develop space.

S: Where hope and fear cease to exist?

TR: Of course.

S: And activity continues; each state continues. Nothing changes?

TR: Nothing changes.

S: If confusion persists, do you just let it persist? Don’t you try to clear it out?

TR: You do not go against the force, or try to change the course of the river.

S: Suppose there are four exits, and in our confusion we don’t know which is a good one?

TR: You see, the whole idea is not to try to calm down; it is to see the calm aspect at the same level rather than just completely calming down. These particular states of turbulence, the emotions or confusions, also have positive qualities. One has to learn to transmute the positive qualities as part of them. So you don’t want to completely destroy their whole existence. If you destroy them, if you try to work against them, it’s possible that you will be thrown back constantly, because fundamentally you’re running against your own energy, your own nature.S: There’s still something undesirable I feel about confusion. You always think that you’re going from some unenlightened state to an enlightened state, that if you stay with it there is this little hope or feeling that you will develop clarity sooner or later.

TR: Yes, there will be clarity. Definitely.

S: So you don’t want confusion to be around, you want to get rid of it, but nevertheless you have to stay in it to see it?

TR: It doesn’t exactly work that way. You see, you begin to realize that the clarity is always there. In fact, when you are in a state of complete clarity you realize that you never needed to have made such a fuss. Rather than realizing how good you are now, you begin to see how foolish you’ve been.

S: Does anything actually exist outside of the mind itself? Does anything actually exist?

TR: I would say yes and no. Outside the mind is, I suppose you could say, that which is not duality—open space. That doesn’t mean that the whole world is going to be empty. Trees will be there, rivers will be there, mountains will be there. But that doesn’t mean they are some thing. Still, tree remains tree and rocks remain rocks.

S: I wonder, in the human world is there any advantage over, say, hell for crossing over, or is it equal in all respects?

TR: I think it’s the same. The karmic potential of the human realm seems to be greater because there is more communication in the human state. The human state is the highest state of passion, and the ultimate meaning of passion is communication, making a link, relationship. So there is a kind of open space, the possibility of communication. But that doesn’t mean that the human realm is an exit from the six realms of the world. The experience of passion is very momentary: you might have a human state of mind one moment and the next moment you have another realm coming through.

S: But seeing as how we have human bodies, isn’t the human world the one in which we have the best chance to accept ourselves for what we are?

TR: Yes, but we are talking about the realms as six experiences within the human body. We are not talking about the different realms as other types of worlds.

S: I understand that, but since we have human bodies and minds, isn’t passion the basic framework of our lives rather than hatred? Don’t we have the best chance of crossing over within that framework?

TR: I think so. That’s precisely why we can discuss these six types of world in a human body. So as far as experience goes it is equal, but the physical situation of the human realm seems to be unequal or special. As I’ve said already, we are discussing these realms now, in our human bodies. However, all of them are human states of mind, one no more so than any other.

S: I’m not clear about the difference between humans and asuras.

TR: The asura realm is a kind of intermediate state between the intense passion of the human realm andintense bliss, which is the world of heaven. Somehow there’s discontentment with the blissful state; one is looking for a more crude experience. Then you begin to transform your experience into that of an asura, which is energy, speed, rushing, and a very sudden glimpse of comparison which is called jealousy or envy. But I don’t think jealousy and envy are concrete enough words to express this state of neuroticism. It’s a combination of jealousy with the efficient speed of looking for an alternative to the blissful state of the world of the gods.

Then in the human realm you begin to find some way of communicating, some way of making that experience more concrete. You begin to find passion instead of pure jealousy and comparison alone. You begin to find that you can get into it: you can dive into it and indulge, in fact. In the realm of the asura there’s no time for indulgence because the whole thing is extremely fast and rushed. It’s almost a reaction against the blissful state.

I would say that with all the realms you are not quite certain what you are actually getting and what you are trying to get hold of. So you try to find the nearest situation and reinforce that or change that. There’s constant confusion.

S: If you drop all your usual patterns of relating, what holds on to giving logical answers?

TR: You can’t do that in any case. Impossible.

S: You could go to the desert.

TR: Then there would still be the desert. If you try to give up patterns, that in itself forms another pattern.

S: But what if you’re not trying?

TR: If you are not trying to drop anything, either pattern or without pattern, and you are accepting all of them as just black and white, you have complete control; you are the master of the whole situation. Before, you were dealing purely at the ground level, but in this case you are dealing from an aerial view, so you have more scope.

S: Does anxiety have anything to do with the asura realm, that rushing quality?

TR: I think so, yes.

S: It also seems that the rushing quality is very closely connected to the hungry ghost state.

TR: That’s a good observation. The world of hell is ultimate crudeness, and the world of the gods is ultimate gentility. The hungry ghost and asura realms are the intermediaries between these two realms and the animal and human realms.

S: Sometimes the fear of losing oneself, of losing ego, is very overwhelming. It’s very real. Is there any way to prepare the ground for dropping that, or do you just have to drop it one step at a time?

TR: I think the only alternative left is just to drop. If you are as close as that, if you’re extremely close to the cliff—

S: You mean to the ground.

TR: To the cliff.

S: It almost seems as if someone has to push you over; you won’t go yourself.

TR: Yes.

S: I was wondering, is there really any reality except the reality about which everyone agrees?

TR: You might find that everybody agrees on it, but sometimes people don’t agree. To some people, one particular aspect is more real than the others. Somehow, trying to prove what is real and what is not real isn’t particularly beneficial.

S: Is it possible that a real world exists, but that even if we all agree as human beings, a catfish or a gopher might see it differently?

TR: Well, it seems that reality, from a rational point of view, is something that you can relate to—when you’re hungry you eat food, when you’re cold you put on more clothes, and when you’re frightened you look for a protector. Those are the kinds of real things we do. Real things happen, experiences such as that happen.

S: Rinpoche, are you going to discuss ego at all during this seminar?

TR: I suppose that subject will pop up.

S: Rinpoche, you said that you can’t get out of a situation, you have to get completely into it.

TR: You have to be completely fearless. And there should be communication with the ground you’re standing on. If you are in complete touch with that nowness of the ground, then all the other situations are automatically definite and obvious.

S: Which world are you in now?

TR: Woof, woof.

S: But you said these are not states of the awakened mind—they are only confusion!

TR: Yes, confusion. Sure.

S: Do the six bardos go around in a circle like the six realms?

TR: Somehow it isn’t as methodical as that.

S: Is it one continuum? How does one move from one to the next?

TR: It’s the same as the different types of emotions, which change from one to another, like temperament. Each bardo is individual, an independent thing, like an island; but each island has some connection with the other islands. The presence of the other islands allows us to see the perspective of any one island. So they are related as well as not related.

S: Is it the water that connects them?

TR: I think so, yes.

S: Could you say that each experience has its root in one or another of the bardos?

TR: Yes, definitely.

S: Is it a good thing, as one is experiencing, to try to hold that view?

TR: Well, one doesn’t have to acknowledge them on the spot necessarily, not intellectually, but from an experiential point of view, this happens and one can acknowledge it, so to speak. It is not necessarily healthy to speculate or to try to put it into categories intellectually. You see, meditation is a way of providing a clear perception of these experiences, so that they don’t become confusing or inspire paranoia. Meditation is a way of gaining new eyesight to look at each situation, to feel situations. And often the hidden aspect of these states or worlds is brought out by meditation. If there’s a tendency to try to hide from yourself the suppressed elements of these worlds, then meditation brings them out. If your experience is constantly destructive, then meditation brings out the friendliness in these situations and you begin to see that you don’t have to regard them as external attacks or negative destructive things anymore. Meditation is a way of seeing the perfect value of them, in a sense, the perfect relationship of them. The whole thing is that you have to work from within. Unless you are willing to go back to the abstract quality, the root, judging the facade doesn’t help at all. So meditation brings you back to the root, dealing with the root of it.

S: Does meditation mean nothing but simply sitting still quietly for forty-five minutes?

TR: In this case, it is not necessarily only that. It’s the active aspect of meditation as well as the formal sitting practice. All aspects.

S: Everybody seems to have different interpretations or opinions as to what you feel about drug addiction or alcoholism in relation to the Buddhist path. Can you relate drug use or heavy drinking to bardo experience?

TR: Well, it seems to be connected with the idea of reality, what is real and what is not real. Everybody tries to find what is real, using all sorts of methods, all sorts of ways. A person may discover it by using alcohol or by using drugs, but then you want to make sure that discovery of reality is really definite, 100% definite. So you go on and on and on. Then somehow, a sort of greediness takes over from your discovery at the beginning, and the whole thing becomes destructive and distorting.

This happens constantly with any kind of experience of life. At the beginning, there’s a relationship; but if you try to take advantage of that relationship in a heavy-handed way, you lose the relationship absolutely, completely. That relationship becomes a destructive one rather than a good one. It’s a question of whether the experience could be kept an actual experience without trying to magnify it. At a certain stage, you begin to forget that the situation that the usage is not pure experience alone; it begins to become a built-up situation that you require. And then there will be conflict. In terms of LSD, for instance, a person has an experience for the first time, and in order to confirm that experience he has to take LSD again—a second, third, fourth, hundredth time—and somehow it ceases to be an experience anymore. It isn’t exactly a question of middle way or happy medium, but somehow trusting oneself is necessary at that point. One doesn’t have to be extremely skeptical of oneself. You have one experience, and that experience is experience—you don’t necessarily have to try to make it into a clear and complete experience. One experience should be total experience.

S: In meditation, how does one get these glimpses of clarity?

TR: In a sense you can create a glimpse by being open to the situation—open meaning without fear of anything, complete experience. A glimpse just takes place; it takes shape of its own and sparks us. But in many cases, when a person tries to re-create that glimpse he or she had already, that sudden flash, it doesn’t happen at all. The more you try, the less experience you get—you don’t experience open space at all. And the minute you are just about to give up, to give in and not care—you get a sudden flash. It’s as if a person is trying very hard to meditate for a set time—it could be in a group or it could be alone—and it doesn’t go very well at all. But the minute you decide to stop, or if it’s group practice, the minute the bell is run, then the meditation actually happens, spontaneously and beautifully. But when you want to recapture that, to re-create that situation, it doesn’t happen anymore. So it’s a question of trying to recapture experience: if you try to recapture an experience, it doesn’t happen—unless you have an absence of fear and the complete confidence that these experiences don’t have to be re-created, but they are there already.

S: Supposing what you think you want more than anything is openness, but you don’t know how to open?

TR: There’s no question of how to do it—just do it! It cannot be explained in words; one has to do it in an instinctive way. And if one really allowed oneself to do it, one could do it.

S: People seem to want to be happy, but it doesn’t work out.

TR: Happiness is something one cannot recapture. Happiness happens, but when we try to recapture it, it’s gone. So from that point of view there’s no permanent happiness.

S: Are the six worlds always happening, and do you attain them in meditation?

TR: Yes, the six realms seem to happen constantly; we are changing from one extreme to another and going through the six realms constantly. And that experience takes place in meditation practice also. Therefore, the whole idea of trying to create a fixed, ideal state of meditation is not the point. You can’t have a fixed, ideal state of meditation because the situation of six realms will be continuously changing.

S: I mean, we’ve spent all our lives in these six realms, but through meditation we can learn to see which realm we’re in, and how to deal with them?

TR: That isn’t the purpose of meditation, but somehow it happens that way. Actual meditation practice is a constant act of freedom in the sense of being without expectation, without a particular goal, aim, and object. But as you practice meditation, as you go along with the technique, you begin to discover your present state of being. That is, we could almost say, a by-product of meditation. So it does happen that way, but it’s no good looking for it and trying to fit it into different degrees or patterns. That doesn’t work.

S: When you just perceive something—smell, hear, see—and you don’t have any thought about anything for a very brief time, what world is that?

TR: Any world. Sure, any world.

S: Are people born with a quality of one of the worlds as predominant?

TR: It seems there is one particular dominant characteristic—which is not particularly good and not particularly bad, but a natural character.

S: Would sense perceptions be the same in all six realms?

TR: The sense perceptions will be different. We are talking about the human situation, and in human life the six experiences of the world will be the same, of course, but your impressions of them will be different. Each thing we see, we see purely in terms of our own likes and dislikes, which happen all the time, and our associations. Certain trees, plants, and things may be irritating for some people; whereas for some other people they may be a good experience.


S: Would you discuss briefly the similarities and differences between Zen practice and mahamudra practice?

TR” Well, that has something to do with the evolutionary aspect of the teachings. The Zen tradition is the actual application of shunyata, or emptiness, practice, the heart of the mahayana teaching. Historically, the Zen method is based on dialectical principles—you engage in continual dialogues with yourself, asking questions constantly. By doing that, in the end you begin to discover that questions don’t apply anymore in relationship to the answer. That is a way of using up dualistic mind, based on the logic of Nagarjuna. The interesting point is that the practice of traditional Indian logic used by Hindu and the Buddhist scholars is turned into experiential logic rather than just ordinary debate or intellectual argument. Logic becomes experiential. In other words, the subject and object of logical discussion are turned into mind and its projections—and that automatically, of course, becomes meditation. Once you begin to follow the whole endless process, everything begins to become nothing—but nothing becomes everything. It’s the same ideas as the four statements of Prajnaparamita: form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form. It’s kind of using up the abundance of hungry energy. Or, it could be said, self-deception is exposed by realizing that you don’t get any answers if you purely ask questions, but you do get answers if you don’t ask questions. But that in itself becomes a question, so in the end the whole thing is dropped completely: you don’t care anymore.

S: In Zen they talk about abrupt realization.

TR: That abruptness is referred to in the Zen tradition as the sword of Manjushri, which cuts through everything. It is symbolized in Zen practice by the stick (kyosaku) carried in the hall during meditation (zazen) practice. If a person wants to have sudden penetrations, or if a person is off his pattern, he’s reminded by being hit on the back—the sword of Manjushri.

In the case of mahamudra, the application or the technique is not quite like the Zen approach of logic,questioning, or koans. It is, in a sense, a highly extroverted practice—you don’t need inward scriptures, but you work with the external aspect of scriptures, which is the phenomenal world. Mahamudra has a cutting quality as well, but that cutting or penetrating quality is purely based on your experiential relationship with the phenomenal world. If your relationship to the phenomenal world is distorted or if you are going too far, then the sword of Manjushri—the equivalent of the sword of Manjushri, which is the phenomenal world—shakes you and demands your attention. In other words, the situation begins to become hostile or destructive for you if you are not in tune with it, if you are dazed or if you’re confused. If you are not willing to put your patience and discipline into practice, then such situations come up. In this case, mahamudra is very much purely dealing with the phenomenal world aspect of symbolism. So mahamudra practice contains a great deal of study of events or situations, seeing them as patterns rather than using logical, koan types of questions—which brings us to the same point.

These two practices are not polarities. You have to go through Zen practice before you get to mahamudra practice, because if you don’t realize that asking questions is the way to learn something, that the questioning process is a learning process, then the whole idea of study becomes distorted. So one must learn to see that trying to struggle for some achievement or goal is useless in any way. You have to start by learning that such a dualistic notion is useless; you have to start from the Zen or mahayana tradition. And after that, you realize that asking questions is not the only way, but being a fool is the only way. If you see the foolishness of asking questions, then you begin to learn something. Foolishness begins to become wisdom.

At that point, you transform yourself into another dimension, a completely other dimension You thought you had achieved a sudden glimpse of nonduality, but that nonduality also contains relationship. You still need to relate yourself to that sudden glimpse of beyond question. That’s when you begin to become mahamudra experience. In other words, the Zen tradition seems to be based on the shunyata principle, which is a kind of emptiness and openness, absence of duality. The mahamudra experience is a way of wiping out the consciousness of the absence: you begin to develop clear perceptions beyond being conscious of the absence. If you feel that absence, voidness, or emptiness is so, then you are dwelling on something, one some kind of state of being. Mahamudra experience transcends that consciousness of being in the void. In that way every situation of life becomes play, dance. It is an extroverted situation.

I suppose you could say that Zen and mahamudra are complementary to one another. Without the one, the other one couldn’t exist. As experience, first of all you clear out the confusion of duality. And then, having cleared that out, you appreciate the absence of the blindfold in terms of appreciating colors and energies and light and everything. You don’t get fascinated by it at all, but you begin to see that it is some kind of pattern. The whole process of mahamudra, in other words, is seeing the situation of life as a pattern. That’s why the word mudra is used, which means “symbolism.” It doesn’t mean ordinary symbolism; it isn’t a question of signifying something, but it is the actual fact of things as they are. The pattern of life is a pattern. It is a definite pattern, a definite path, and you learn how to walk on it. I think this particular topic needs some kind of actual experience or practice, you can really explain it in terms of words.

S: If one is preliminary to the other, can you explain the emphasis in Zen meditation practice on posture and the lack of emphasis in mahamudra?

TR: Well, I think that the discipline which goes along with Zen practice is connected with the experience of being determined—being determined and willing to use up any dualistic notion Therefore it is described in terms of struggle, or within the framework of discipline. Otherwise, if there were no framework around this notion of shunyata, or voidness, you wouldn’t have anything at all; you wouldn’t even have practice, because everything is nothing, absolute nothing. In order to bring out the notion of shunyata and voidness, you have to create a horizon, or some framework, which is discipline. That is necessary. That is what we all do in the practice of meditation: at the beginner’s level, we have disciplines or techniques, something to do. In the case of mahamudra, instead of putting discipline into situations, the situations bring out discipline for you. If you are lax, the situation reminds you, jerks you, and you’ll be pushed; if you are going too slow, if you are too careful, the situation will push you overboard.

S: Are we beginners, or are we advanced enough to disregard the techniques?

TR: It’s much safer to say that we’re all beginners, that we do need some act of sitting down and practicing. But, of course, the level of discipline in meditation practice is not only a conflict between mahamudra practice and the Zen tradition at all. It’s also connected with different styles of teaching, such as the Theravadin tradition of Southeast Asia, Tibetan Buddhism, or the Chinese tradition. Each culture effects a different tradition and style of practice. Obviously, in the Zen tradition a lot of the formality is highly connected simply with Japanese culture rather than fundamental Buddhism. And the same thing could be said about Tibetan Buddhism as well—a lot of things came into it from the Tibetan cultural background, not from the actual teaching. Those cultural styles make a difference in some says.

S: Do you have to have some preparation for working in a mahamudra way? Does one have to be particularly conscious of the transition point from Zen to mahamudra?

TR: Well, it happens as you grow. It would be too presumptuous for teachers to say that now you’re ready for mahamudra—in fact, it would be dangerous to say it. But if a student finds himself in the situation of mahamudra under the pretense of practicing Zen, he’ll find himself in a mahamudra situation automatically. Then of course he’ll accept that as the next process. But there wouldn’t be a big deal about relaxing from one technique to another technique at all; it would become a natural process for the student.

S: When you say “situations,” do you mean the situations that arise in daily life?

TR: I mean individual meditation experience as well as daily life and your relationship to it. Many people have heard about the principle of abhisheka and the initiations that are involved with mahamudra teachings or tantric teachings in general. But initiations aren’t degrees at all; initiations are the acceptance of you as a suitable candidate for the practice. There’s really only one initiation, and that’s the acceptance of your whole being, your whole attitude, as suitable to practice, that you are the right type of person. Beyond that, there’s no change of techniques and practices. It’s not like a staircase at all; everything’s a very evolutionary process. When you are on the first level, as you go along, you begin to develop possibilities and qualities of the next step. And then, as you begin to lose the idea that the first step is the only way, you begin to discover something else. You begin to grow like a tree. It is a very general process, and therefore it is very dangerous to pin down that you belong to a different type of experience, a different level.

S: Both you and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi speak of the path as being dangerous. I always wondered what the danger is that I should be avoiding.

TR: They are numerous. Danger is really a relative term, in terms of the relationship of ego and the relationship of being awake. The relationship of ego is regarded as a danger—the extreme or the confusion. But danger also comes from different levels of practice. Danger always comes with speed, going fast—very rarely from going too slowly. And generally we go very fast. There’s the possibility that if you go too fast youwill get hurt. There’s the danger of going too slow as well, being too concerned and becoming ultraconservative. That’s not the case in the West, particularly; it is more the case in the East. Easterners go too slowly; they don’t go fast enough. In a lot of cases, according to the stories of great teachers and their relationship to students on the path, the teachers actually have to push their students overboard, kick them out. “If you hesitate to jump, then I’ll push you—let’s go!” That sort of hesitation is a problem of the Eastern mentality. And in the West, the problem seems to be one of going too fast, being unbalanced, bringing up pain and confusion in terms of ego.

S: If the danger is of going too fast, don’t you intensify that danger for us by outlining the mahamudra practice as a superior one, because most of us tend to want to skip to a more advanced practice without experiencing fully the preliminary level?

TR: Precisely. That’s the whole point. I do feel that I’m responsible for this. And precisely for that reason, in the practice of meditation I try to present everything as extremely dull and uncolorful. In fact, most people who practice meditation are going through the process of discovering that meditation practice is not a kick anymore; the whole practice is extremely dull and uninteresting. And I think we have to go through that process as well. But I don’t think there is anything wrong in mentioning mahamudra. It doesn’t have to be introduced as a surprise. There is this possibility if you go through it, but it needs patience and hard work—that automatically brings up a person’s inspiration, which is a very great thing.

S: Concerning the idea of different levels or hierarchies of practice, sometimes it seems like we’re in all these levels at the same time.

TR: Well, we are passing through the six realms of the world all the time. I mean, you pass through those different states of the world every moment or every other moment, on and off. But the gradual development we’ve been talking about is more definite than that. You may have an experience or mahamudra as well as an experience of Zen happening all the time, but as your Zen practice develops, your experience of mahamudra becomes more frequent, and you develop in that way. And beyond mahamudra, your experience of maha ati also begins to develop more. The flash of that experience becomes more and more frequent, stronger and more real.

S: All this seems endless.

TR: I think it is an extremely good thing to realize that the learning process is endless.

S: I thought you said the whole idea is to stop collecting things, but you’re collecting more things.

TR: It isn’t really collecting, but you’re involving yourself in it. You see, the whole point is that mahamudra is not introducing a new thing or new theme, but if you reach an absolute understanding of the shunyata principle, then that becomes mahamudra. And when you understand completely the level of mahamudra, then that becomes something else. So it’s a growing process. It’s not collecting anything at all, but it’s the way you grow. And each step is a way of unmasking yourself as well. You begin by realizing the shunyata principle and experience, and then you begin to see it as a foolish game. You begin to see the foolishness of it once you get to mahamudra experience. And once you transcend mahamudra experience, then you again begin to see that you unnecessarily fooled yourself. It’s a continual unpeeling process, a continual unmasking process. So it’s more of a continual renunciation than collecting anything—until there’s nothing further that you have to go through, no journey you have to make. And then you begin to see that the whole journey youmade was a foolish thing that you never made at all.

S: You speak of the original understanding of voidness as something thta you transcend more and more, rather than giving up one thing to proceed to another, as though you were climbing a ladder?

TR: Each moment has possibilities or potentials of everything. Your experience of emptiness and form is empty at the beginning level as well, all the time, but somehow your experience becomes more and more deep as you go along. So in a sense it could be called a progressive process, but is not absolutely so—because all the possibilities or potentials of the various steps are present in one moment of personal experience.

S: Is it as if the circle of one’s understanding keeps enlarging and includes more and more, rather than giving up one thing to proceed to the other?

TR: Yes. It’s a process of going deeper and deeper. You are unpeeling, unmasking the crude facade to start with. Then you unmask the semi-crude facade; then you unmask a kind of genteel facade; and you go on and on and on. The facades become more and more delicate and more profound, but at the same time they are all facades—you unpeel them, and by doing so you include all experiences. That is why at the end of journey, the experience of maha ati is referred to as the imperial yana (vehicle or path) which sees everything, includes everything. It is described as being like climbing up the highest mountain of the world and seeing all the other mountains underneath you: you have complete command of the whole view, which includes everything in its absolute perfection.

S: I don’t understand what is meant when it’s said that forms are empty. I don’t understand what emptiness means.

TR: When we talk of emptiness, it means the absence of solidity, the absence of fixed notions which cannot be changed, which have no relationship with us at all but which remain as they are, separate. And form, in this case, is more the solidity of experience. In other words, it is a certain kind of determination not to give away, not to open. You would like to keep everything intact purely for the purpose of security, of knowing where you are. You are afraid to change. That sort o9f solidness is form. So “Form is empty” is the absence of that security; you see everything as penetrating and open. But that doesn’t mean that everything has to be completely formless, or nothing. When we talk of nothingness, emptiness, or voidness, we are not talking in terms of negatives but in terms of nothingness being everything. It’s another way of saying “everything”—but it is much safer to say “nothing” at that particular level than “everything.”

S: What is the relation of kriya yoga, the Hindu practice, to mahamudra?

TR: It’s the same thing. Kriya yoga, or kriya yana, is the first tantric yana, or stage. In kriya yoga, the basic notion of absolute is presented in terms of purity. Because your discovery of the symbolism of mahamudra experience is so sharp and colorful and precise, you begin to feel that if experience is so good and accurate, it has to be pure. And that fundamental notion of purity in kriya yoga is the first discovery that such an experience as mahamudra is there. In other words, it is excitement at the discovery of mahamudra, the experience of a tremendously valuable discovery. An extra attitude of sacredness begins to develop because of your mahamudra experience. That is kriya yoga, the first step. It is the first discovery of mahamudra.

S: But kriya yoga is also a Hindu school.

TR: Buddhist and Hindu kriya yoga probably use different kinds of symbolism, iconography; but the fundamental idea of kriya yoga in the two traditions is very close, definitely close.

S: Is kriya yoga a definite technique?

TR: It is. In fact, you could almost say it is 99% technique.

S: Couldn’t one use the expression “truthfulness” instead of “purity,” since in the experience you are talking about, all pretensions are suddenly missing?

TR: Yes, that’s true.

S: So why should one get rid of it?

TR: Well, you see, there are different types of discoveries. The discovery that happens in kriya yoga is in some ways a sharp and absolute discovery, but it is still based on spiritual materialism, meaning spirituality having a reference to ego. You see, any kind of practice which encourages constant health, constant survival, is based on ego. And actually, any discovery of such a practice wouldn’t be absolute truthfulness or an absolute discovery, because it would have a tinge of your version of the discovery rather than what is, because you’re seeing through the filter of ego. Such discoveries, connected with spiritual development or bliss, are regarded as something that you should transcend.

I suppose we are talking about the definition of “absolute” and of “truth.” You see, absoluteness or truth in the ultimate sense is not regarded as a learning process anymore. You just see true as true. It is being true, rather than possessing truth. That is the absence of ego; whereas in the case of ego, you still feel you possess truth. That doesn’t mean that you have to start absolutely perfectly. Of course you start with ego and with confusions and negatives—that’s fine. Ego is the sort of ambitious quality which comes up throughout all parts of the pattern, a kind of continual, constant philosophy of survival. Ego is involved in the will power of survival, the will power of not dying, not being hurt. When that kind of philosophy begins to be involved with the path, it becomes negative—or confusing rather, in this case. But that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have any of these notions at all. At the beginning of the path, you have all sorts of collections, but that doesn’t matter. In fact, it is very enriching to have them, to work with them. So the point is, one begins with faults, one begins with mistakes. That is the only way to begin.

S: When I think of some possible terror or pain, I think, “That’s my ego.” At the same time, if I get very relaxed, then I think maybe I am heading for danger, that I am not taking any precautions.

TR: One doesn’t have to rely purely on blind faith or guesswork alone. Whether it is going to be dangerous or not depends on how much of a relationship to the present situation you are able to make, how much you are able to communicate with the present situation. If your relationship with the present situation is vague or confused, then something’s not quite solid; whereas if your relationship is quite clear and open, then that’s fine. That seems to be the criterion and judgment—standing on the ground, the earthy quality, grounding quality. I often refer to it as the peasant quality—simple, but at the same time, solid.

Back to Transcending Madness Table of Contents


Bardo | The Six Realms of Being | The Bardo of Meditation | The Bardo of Birth

The Bardo of Illusory Body | The Bardo of Dreams | The Bardo of Existence

The Bardo of Death | The Lonely Journey