Friday, August 20, 2010

Healing With Form, Energy, and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen

Book Review: Healing with Form, Energy, and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

This was an interesting book – the 2nd I have read by him. He is a Bon Buddhist teacher living in the US who speaks fluent English. He starts by describing the traditional three levels of spiritual practice – External, Internal, and Secret. In his description – shamanism represents the external level where ritual interaction with spirits and elemental deities and forms is the method (although he makes clear that he is using shamanism as an umbrella term). Internal practice refers to working with internal energies such as the yogic pranas or the feng shui energies or energies shared among humans. This is the primary methodology in Tantra. The Secret dimension – described as Dzogchen in this system - is said to be even more subtle and non-dual and somewhat beyond adequate verbal description. One first would need to access this dimension of reality before being able to work with it. So in this explanation Shamanism involves healing with Form, Tantra involves healing with Energy, and Dzogchen involves healing with so-called very subtle Natural Light.

Of the nine levels of Bon practice of the Southern Treasure Tradition the first four are called the causal vehicles equated with shamanism. These are the Ways of Prediction, the Visible World, Magical Illusion, and Existence. Here is an interesting quote:

-In Bon, the shamanic practitioner works mostly with external symbols and with symbolic acts of ritual. The symbol connects the focused mind of the practitioner with the aspect of experience the symbol represents, whether a force or entity. For instance, when a food offering is made to spirits or deities, it is often placed outside. Eventually birds, insects, or animals eat it. This doesn't negate the offering. On the energetic level, the symbols and symbolic actions have made a connection: something has been offered from the human side and something has been received from the spirit side.-

Good health is defined by the five elements being in balance. This applies also to good fortune. That is what is represented by the five colors of prayer flags. The components of being are seen slightly differently in the different vehicles. In the shamanic vehicle there is the sems – the conceptual mind, the la – the soul of this life that contains the karmic traces, and the yee – the reflective aspect of the mind that experiences the la. The three are inseparable. The loss of the la is the same as the soul loss described in Circumpolar shamanism. This is considered a great elemental imbalance. Another way to classify the being is la, sok, and tse where la is karmic capacity, sok is life force/vitality which can be accumulated or lost, and tse is lifespan.

The first set of practices in the book involve meditation on the elements in order to strengthen one's connection to them. Sky gazing on top of a mountain is the method for the Space element.

In the section called – Relating to Non-Physical Beings – he describes the Buddhist practice of offering to the four classes of guests. First are the enlightened beings, tutelary deities, and enlightened goddesses. Second are the gods, devas, guardians, planetary spirits, and dharma protectors all considered partially enlightened. Third are all those beings with which we have karmic connections and those to which we have karmic debts. Fourth are the guests of compassion. These are the ones we can help. Compassion is the foundation motivation of all practice.

There is an explanation of soul retrieval in terms of the arrow, turquoise, and the soul deer that is a ritual that combines Siberian-style shamanism with Buddhist-style preparation and intention. Turquoise is called la-gyu – the symbolic holder of the soul. There is a more do-able rite given for Retrieving the Elemental Energies which involves mantras and working with the elemental goddesses. This is very interesting and might be good to do in a short retreat or with a small group of people.

The next section about the five elements in tantra describes the analogy of the horse, the path, the rider, and the armour and the five types of prana. The horse is prana, the path is channels in the subtle body, the rider refers to the drops (tigle or bindu in Sanskrit), and the armour is the symbol, or syllable. Since Tantra involves the transformation of energy by working with this subtle body scenario the correspondences and techniques are described. There is a great explanation of these tsa lung yogic practices which involve various types of breathing in the external tsa lung, working with the five pranas in the internal tsa lung and the secret tsa lung. These are all methods to open the successive chakras as in the classical yoga tradition.

The last section regards the five elements in the Great Perfection, or Dzogchen system. There is a very good explanation here. The explanation is based on a text called The Six Lamps from the Zhang Zhung tradition (Zhang Zhung is an ancient city now gone but with some probable archeological remains). Here is an interesting quote from his commentary:

"Samantabhadra is the primordial Buddha because he was never deluded, never distracted from the natural state. He never mistook phenomena for something other than empty luminosity. We ordinary beings are distracted. We identify with the moving mind and objectify phenomena. Deluded and trapped in the dualistic vision of me and not-me, we wander in samsara."

Each of the six lamps are described – in terms of sound, light, and rays. This equates to body, speech, and mind/consciousness which are purified and recognized in terms enlightened awareness. There is information about the space element that is worked with in Dzogchen practice. Here is a quick summary of dzogchen practice:

"Recognize non-dual innate awareness, dissolve all identity into it, and abide without distraction."

The traditional practice is in two parts: trekchod – or cutting through distraction and tsogal – or crossing over which are the visionary practices which naturally follow cutting through. Cutting through involves integrating with the space element. Crossing over is – allowing experience to manifest without being distracted from the nature of mind. The practice of dark retreat is a practice of tsogal – crossing over. This is when one lives for several weeks or more – usually 49 days as in the bardo – in complete darkness. Thus are the visions of the five elements in terms of the five subtle internal lights. Meditating on the lights that occur when one is in complete darkness is said to be good preparation for the darkness of the bardo at death.

Overall this was a great book – with many interesting practices that are worthwhile.

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