Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Reginald A. Ray. Reggie brings us four decades of study and intensive meditation practice within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as well as a special gift for applying ancient wisdom to the unique problems, inspirations, and spiritual imperatives of modern people. He is the co-founder and spiritual director of Dharma Ocean, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the practice, study, and preservation of the teachings of Reggie’s teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the practicing lineage he embodied.
With Sounds True, Reggie has a written a book entitled Touching Enlightenment, and a two-volume audio learning series called Your Breathing Body: Beginning Practices for Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Fulfillment. Reggie has also just released quite a historical audio learning series; it’s called Mahamudra for the Modern World: An Unprecedented Training Course in the Pinnacle Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s a program in which Reggie offers an unprecedented audio training course on the pinnacle teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Reggie and I spoke about how glimpsing the awakened state fits in with the Mahamudra training. We also talked about the transmission of the awakened state through digital means. We talked about how in the Mahamudra there are three teachers: a human teacher, life itself as a teacher, and the natural state as our teacher. And finally we talked about the paradox of the awakened state being something quite personal and impersonal at the same time. Here’s my conversation with the truly gifted and pioneering meditation teacher, Reggie Ray.
To begin this episode of Insights at the Edge, I want to start with a transparent moment, a confessional moment if you will, which is to tell our listeners that Reggie Ray is actually someone that I have been studying closely with for 10 years. And in fact, Reggie, sitting across from me here, I think of you as a teacher in the capital ‘T’ sense of the word. I’ve taken vows to work closely with you and co-create with you within the lineage that we’re both a part of and I want to let our listeners know that right here at the beginning and that the teachings that we’ll be talking about—the Mahamudra teachings of Tibetan Buddhism—are very dear to me and so this is a wonderful opportunity for me to introduce our listeners to the Mahamudra. So there’s my confession at the start.
I don’t know if you have anything you’d like to say here as we begin our conversation?
Reggie Ray: Well, only that the journey with you has been so interesting and so many ups and downs leading to—really I think the way it should always be within a spiritual lineage between a mentor and somebody who’s in the process of studying and learning—a very deep friendship. Ultimately a friendship with open hearts and open minds and no hierarchy at all, just eye to eye and heart to heart. I very much appreciate that you’ve been willing to make this very radical and surprising journey with me.
TS: So here at the start I want to bring our listeners up to speed on what we’re talking about in terms of making what could called the Mahamudra journey. I think many people think of Mahamudra as the most advanced teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and that sounds really hard and unattainable, so I don’t really need to know much more about it because it’s something I’ll never experience in my life. It’s out there for those Tibetan Buddhists who are going to go through 12, 14, 10 different levels of this or that. How would you introduce people to the Mahamudra journey?
RR: Well, I would say to begin with that Mahamudra means “the transcendent symbol,” and that doesn’t really communicate, so let me tell you what that is about. Another way of translating Mahamudra is to say that it is the complete experience, the full experience of human life. Maha means complete or total, that there’s nothing beyond it, and Mudra means experience. It’s interesting that the Mahamudra is the most advanced teaching within Tibetan Buddhism, but at the same time it’s about something that is in all of us. Frankly I believe [that] in everything that we do, we are looking for the fullness of our own human experience and the tremendous depth and fulfillment that that can bring. That’s really what the Mahamudra is about. It’s about delivering to people through a tradition their own life and their freedom.
The Mahamudra journey, we could say, is the most advanced teaching; we could also say it’s the earliest and the simplest teaching that the Buddha gave. The way the tradition frames it is that the Buddha gave this very simple teaching about human life and human freedom and human fulfillment and human happiness, but it was so simple that within the Indian environment nobody believed him and nobody believed that it was possible. According to the tradition, he developed a lot of different avenues to this tremendous simplicity.
The interesting thing in our culture is that we’re not an Asian culture; we’re not an agrarian culture. We’re a very sophisticated and in a way spiritually informed group of people, particularly in Western culture at this point. I believe that the Mahamudra teachings can be delivered in a much more spare, much more direct and much more penetrating way than they have presented in Asia, and both Tibetan and Western teachers would agree with me on that point.
TS: Now, do you feel there is any “secrecy” needed related to the Mahamudra teachings?
RR: Well, because we’re talking about the gradual opening of our hearts and the gradual opening of our sensitivity and our subtlety in relation to our own lives—it’s an evolving process. It’s not something that we get right in the beginning, and in a sense the full depth of our human person is a secret, so in that sense there is secrecy—not in the sense that people need to be kept out of the Mahamudra practices but simply that it takes time to uncover the subtlety and the depth and the hiddenness of our own fullness as people. That’s the only way in which I would think the secrecy applies.
TS: Part of what’s behind my question is here with Sounds True you’ve created a 33-CD training course in the Mahamudra and I don’t think anything like this has ever been done; an audio training course of 40-plus hours of teachings and practices. I think part of the reason it’s never been done is that there’s this idea that you need to work in an environment with a human teacher and that you need to have done certain preliminary practices first. Here you are just [whistles] opening the gates wide and making it widely available through a series of recordings.
RR: Well, this is maybe something quite surprising, but in the Tibetan tradition—although there were many lineages in which the Mahamudra was not taught until way later—in the early Tibetan tradition, and I’m thinking of some early tradition of the Kagyu Lineage and the Ninga (Ninja) lineage also (where Mahamudra is called Dzogchen), you have these teachings being given to people outside the framework of the official monastic tradition and the official Tantric tradition. People who were just ordinary lay people living in the world like us, like most of us. It has been done, but simply because of the nature of Tibetan Buddhism—because it’s such an ornate tradition and so ritually-oriented—that it isn’t really known in the West that it was done that way but it was.
What we’re doing here really is going back to the earliest Tibetan tradition, and even beyond that to India, where these teachings often were simply given by a teacher passing a practitioner on the road that that teacher maybe didn’t even know, and seeing that that practitioner had the capacity for their mind to really open toward their own life. Those teachings were given in that environment outside of any official religious setting whatsoever. In a sense, we’re going back to the beginning of this tradition and what we’re doing here.
TS: Okay. I want to give listeners more of a sense of what we actually mean by the Mahamudra teachings. Because yes, you talked about how it’s coming into the fullness of our life, the fullness of our experience, but that also can sound a little general. So to get a little bit more specific within the practice of the Mahamudra, early on we begin with the introduction by the teacher to what’s known as “The Awakened State” or “The Natural State.” I want to know if you can talk about that; this idea of a “state” that we’re being introduced to.
RR: Well, this brings up the whole question of what is enlightenment, because the awakened state is a very experiential term for Nirvana, for the attainment of full realization or whatever you want to say. Within the tantric tradition in the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet, which is where Mahamudra has been most often taught, each of us has as our basic nature an open and limitless field of freedom and awareness. This is something that not only can be experienced, but also has to be experienced in order for us to make a spiritual journey. There has to be some way for us to have a glimpse of this infinite depth of our own state of being, and the purpose of what’s called “pointing out” in the Mahamudra tradition is for the teacher to use various techniques to open that state of mind.
Now you might say, “Why is that important?” If this is our basic nature, why don’t we all experience it and walk around and know it? Because, normally for probably all human beings in all cultures, the default state is an ego state. In neurobiology, we know that the default state of most people, where they’re not doing something or actively thinking about something, is a running commentary about themselves and their own life and what’s going on. Trungpa Rinpoche, my root guru, called it subconscious gossip. That is like a one-foot layer of debris on top of the ocean of our state of being, and most of us think that who we are is just this incessant thinking and ruminating and grinding away at our issues, obsessions and so on. We have no awareness at all of who we really are in the full sense.
Because of that situation, the “pointing out” is given so that we can see directly that wow, oh my god, this is this huge open, endless field at the basis of me, and it feels more me and more open and more joyful than I’ve ever felt. Once we have a glimpse of that so-called basic nature or that awakened state—because that is what enlightenment is—even though it closes up again, we know it’s there. We know for sure. That is hugely inspiring in terms of making the journey.
TS: I want to talk a little bit more about this word “state” as a noun, because people think of a state often as being something that is the same all of the time, or it’s like some geographic zone that you go to. So I’m wondering if you can speak more about that experience. The awakened state, the natural state, is it dynamic, changing, different all of the time? How do I know that that’s what I’m glimpsing when the pointing out experience is going on?
RR: Well, think of the known universe and let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that space goes on forever. And all of these things happen within that space, and all of these things are all of the astrological, astronomical, cosmological phenomena: stars and all of the things that go on in relation to galaxies and so on. The natural state or the awakened state is the space itself, but there’s one difference between physical space and the awakened state, and that is that the space of the awakened state is alive and it’s sentient. In other words, we can have a moment when the mind is absolutely open and we’re not thinking about anything and we feel the infinite expanse of our own awareness and we’re completely there. We’re not spaced out at all. We’re totally there. That’s the awakened state.
We can talk about what happens out of that state and within that state, and that’s an important conversation, but the state itself is just the underlying condition of experience. There could be no experience if there weren’t that openness and vastness of mind. Now, we can say that theoretically, but it’s a completely different issue to actually touch that ourselves, and see it for ourselves. Many people who first experience that state—and perhaps many of your listeners have—when they first see it their minds are literally blown to smithereens. They can’t believe it because they never knew there was so much to their own human being.
TS: Now, how would you say that the glimpsing of this state fits into the Mahamudra training? How would you frame that?
RR: Well, it’s often said that there are three stages in the Mahamudra training. The first stage is that we need to realize that the awakened state is real and it can be experienced, and it can be experienced by me. I can experience it because it’s actually within me. So that’s step number one, and that’s what pointing out delivers. Once you have that certainty, one of the things that comes along with it is an incredible appetite to go there, to be there—and why? Because the quality of that infinite depth of our own being gives us such a sense of liberation, such a sense of releasing all of our limitations and all of our shackles. There’s a huge sense of freedom that is so energizing and such a fundamental relief.
Also, the experience of that freedom brings with it a kind of confidence in life [where] we realize who we are really is infinite; you can see when you experience this part of yourself that it never came into being in a certain moment and it’s never going to die. It frees you not only within yourself but also frees you to live. Whatever life you want to live, it frees you to live that life, and that brings with it enormous joy. So, it’s like you have all of the inspiration you need. You don’t need to read a lot of books. You don’t need to talk to a lot of people. You don’t need to hear a lot of teachings. Once you experience that for yourself, you have everything you need in terms of motivation and inspiration to make this journey.
The second step is through your practice, through your Mahamudra practice, which is what this whole 33-CD program is about. Through these practices you deepen your relationship to that depth of your own nature, so that in the beginning you can rest in it for a few seconds, and then for a few minutes, and eventually you get to the point where you rest there all of the time. It’s always your default; instead of your thinking mind being your default; the awakened state is your default. Then you can live your life in a completely different way—in a way that is much more consistent with who you want to be, and your ability to experience your life in a very open, courageous, and brave way is just given to you. It’s not something you have to conquer. That is stage number two, and that’s the whole path of Mahamudra and that’s really what we’re looking at in the program.
The fruition of Mahamudra is where the sense of having to withdraw from our awakened state, from our vastness, dissolves and you live there all of the time. That’s an ever-receding horizon. The journey—the Tibetan teachers will say—never ends, but you get to the point where you really begin to see it unfolding in your own state of being. At a certain point, life becomes very joyful and even the prospect of death isn’t regarded as a shadow in your life.
TS: I want to talk a little bit more about this path component, the second component that you’re highlighting here. I think a lot of people in the contemporary spiritual world might say, “You know, I listened or went to this program with so- and-so nondual teacher and I think I had a taste of this vastness, and now I have the experience in my life of something that could be called the ‘I got it, I lost it’ phenomenon.” Like, I got it, I’m there, I’m open, I’m not in my thinking mind and then I lost it—and this goes on and on, this back and forth for decade upon decade. At the end, 20, 30, 40 years later I’m not sure how much transformation happened in my life.
I suffered a lot of ‘I got it, I lost it,’ and it seems to me that you’re offering something different here when you talk about the path. Many people seem what I would call “path averse” in the contemporary spiritual scene—meaning I just want to have the goal now. I don’t necessarily want to follow a “path.” I’m curious what you think about that?
RR: Well I think it’s a very confusing conversation that’s happening in the Western world, but now it’s really happening everywhere, where you’ll have very gifted teachers say that the goal is beyond every path, the awakened state is beyond every practice, and that if you’re doing any kind of practice, you’re hung up and that’s not it. While that’s true to some degree, the ultimate attainment is to be able to rest in the state of non-concept or the non-egoic state or the awakened state. The goal is to rest there all of the time. When you rest there, then practice is really irrelevant. While that’s true, for most people—as you’re indicating—that’s not how it is. For this gifted elite of people who feel that they’ve completely transcended the human condition, it may be true, but it certainly isn’t true for the rest of us.
One of the things I have found very appealing about the Tibetan tradition and the Vajrayana, particularly the Mahamudra teachings, is that it’s very practical, it’s very down to earth, and it is willing to accept our actual experience and our actual hang-ups and our actual humanity, and willing to dig into that and work with it, and show us that it can be transformed.
There is a very famous Tibetan teacher named Milarepa, who lived in the 11th and 12th century, and he basically is regarded as having fully achieved the Mahamudra. At the end of his life some of his students said, “Well, you were special. You achieved the Mahamudra because you are this very special being from the day of your birth.” He said, “Actually, you’ve got it backwards. The reason that I have attained the realization that I have is because I was not only exactly like you, but I was actually in worse shape than you are. I had more obstacles and more psychological disability and even mental illness when I started than anybody that I know. It was through applying these amazing teachings to my dysfunction that actually enabled me to become the person that I am today and to achieve the happiness and the realization that I have.”
This was a person who lived in a cold, dank cave his whole life, and he never had quite enough food, as those yogis did in those days, and it was very uncomfortable. He said many, many times during his life, “I’m the happiest person on the planet.” I think [with] the issue of a “path,” on the one hand, 99.9999 percent of all of us need a path because we can’t simply rest in natural state, and we should admit it.
The second thing is: the deeper the path, the higher the realization. That is really interesting. If you’re born enlightened, you’re not going to go anywhere and nothing much is going to happen. The Vajarayana teaches that the deeper the path—the more negative material, the more confusion, the more pain, the more suffering we have to work with—the brighter, the bigger and the vaster and the warmer the realization we’re eventually going to attain. So, the Mahamudra is very grounded, it’s very earthy and it’s very based on who we actually are, not just in Tibet, but also in the modern world as humans and what we actually have to work with.
TS: Okay, and once again, to introduce to new people what this path is then, what do you think are its important features?
RR: Well I would say that there really are three major stages, and I’ll put it this way because that’s how we’re doing it on this program. The first stage or dimension—and by the way, all of these stages, you could call them maybe not even stages but dimensions of practice and they continue through the whole tradition—is assessing our actual human situation. Assessing, for example, that we have a certain karmic situation and being realistic about it. You know, I’m male, I’m female; I’m gay, I’m straight; I’m wealthy, I’m poor; I have good health, I have poor health. It’s being willing to face, to look in the mirror and really accept who we are as the basis of the journey, including all of our family history and our traumas and so on, and to realize that that is the basis of the path. That kind of realism and that kind of courage to take who we are as the ground.
The second part, I think, is the practice of mindfulness. We hear a great deal in our world today about mindfulness practice, and especially [the] mindfulness-based stress reduction of John Kabat-Zinn, which is becoming a very, very popular, very widely used technique to release suffering. That kind of practice is actually the first step on the Mahamudra journey in terms of actual practice.
So we have the preliminary, and then we have number two is the first practice stage, and then we have the second practice stage. Mindfulness practice in the Mahamudra tradition means learning to become really present to our state of being. Most of us are distracted most of the time, and through working with mindfulness techniques we learn how to pay attention to our breath, to our body, to our emotions. It’s paying attention and learning to experience things more and more directly rather than through the filter of what we think about things.
I really want to emphasize that. Most of us do not have direct experience of life; we don’t even know what it is. Most of us can only experience life through what we think about life. Mindfulness practice—and you read about this in all of the mindfulness books, by paying attention to the breath and the tip of the nostrils, or paying attention to the feeling of the body as it breathes in and out, or dozens of other techniques—teaches us to feel our human existence and to be present to it, and we can talk a little bit, if you like, about how that works.
So mindfulness is step number one in terms of the actual practice. Step number two, and this is something that is not taught in the mindfulness movement in the West, which I think is okay, but I will often say that mindfulness is only half of the story. The other half of the story is what’s called awareness practice.
In that practice, we begin to look into the life that mindfulness helps us to begin to discover. We look into the nature of our mind. We look into the nature of our body. We look into the nature of our emotions. In the Mahamudra tradition, those are considered gates to eternity, because what we discover when we start looking into our experience and opening ourselves nakedly to our own human life, is that the significance, the depth, the meaningfulness, the power of our life is infinitely greater than what we thought. So, one thing is to be present, but number two is to open to a much deeper understanding and experience of our human life.
TS: Now I want to go back to this idea that the awakened state is something that can be transmitted as part of Mahamudra training and that this happens actually even before the mindfulness training. That this transmission, ground Mahamudra transmission, happens right at the beginning of the training. Can you speak to that just for a moment?
RR: In the normal Tibetan tradition, that pointing out instruction is usually differed, and sometimes it’s differed a long time. You can practice ten years before that pointing instruction is given or that pointing out experience is given. My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, had an unusual style, which was that he had so much confidence in the sanity of us Westerners that he routinely would do pointing out instruction in all kinds of situations from day one.
In other words, you go in to meet the man, you sit down and you’re having an interview, and all of a sudden you find yourself floating in eternity. In the meantime he’s sitting there and you’re sitting there, the sun is shining, there’s a breeze, the curtains are ruffling and your mind goes on forever, and you look around the room, and the beauty of the sunlight falling on the floor and the feeling of the cool breeze on your face is almost like you woke up from a dream. He opened that door for us right at the beginning and I wouldn’t be doing it if he hadn’t done it.
But what he felt was that all of the discussions about how Western people are materialistic and they’re not spiritually capable, he regarded that as just a lot of Asian rhetoric and he felt that wasn’t true. He actually felt that we as modern people, and Western people, but now modern people really because we have to talk globally, we actually are better placed to realize the full depth of this tradition than most people in Asia. That was shocking information and still is.
TS: And that we’re better positioned? Why is that?
RR: We’re better positioned because we’re not tied into conservative hierarchical cultures. You know my training is in the history of religion, so my PhD is in the comparative study of religion, and if anybody out there knows a lot about Asian culture, one thing you know is that they’re very, very conservative and there’s a real hierarchy between the elite male practitioners of a culture and all women, and almost everybody else including all lay people. It’s not 100 percent like that, but that’s the overwhelming mainstream of Asian cultures. When you live in a culture like that, it wouldn’t occur to you that you can attain something like the Mahamudra, and if you went to a teacher, they probably wouldn’t teach it to you because they wouldn’t think you could do it either.
Trungpa Rinpoche came into Western culture in the mid 60s in England, and then to the United States in 1970, and his assessment was that because our culture was so chaotic—I mean in a way it’s not good, there’s a lot of suffering that Asians don’t have—but in another way, he felt that we were much, much more potentially open to spiritual teachings than people in Asia. He actually said that the number of people in Tibet, for example, who were genuine practitioners, was a teeny minority—teeny!—and “genuine” means people who really wanted to make the full journey. But he found in the West that the number of people that wanted to do it was much greater, and he thought [that number] would grow.
I think we’re seeing that now. I think we’re seeing now many, many people in the Western world and the rest of the world who want to not simply follow a nice conventional traditional religious path, but they actually want to wake up, and they want to attain the full possibilities of their human life before they die.
TS: Okay, so ground Mahamudra transmission. The transmission of this awakened state. I mean something very radical happened, Reggie, in the production of this 33-CD series, Mahamudra for the Modern World, which is you said, “Okay, let’s do it.” Let’s give ground Mahamudra transmission on a recording and put it out as part of this training course. It’s part of the training, and it needs to be part of the 33 CDs and we can do it right here as a recording. I thought to myself, “Wow, I don’t think this has probably ever been done before. This is a real historic moment in my Sounds True life.” I’d like you to talk a little bit about that. How can a recording as a transmission of the awakened state work? I’m not sitting with a teacher. I’m not in their physical presence. I’m listening to a recording.
RR: Well you know, that’s a great question. I have to tell you that when I first started teaching in a not-live way, which was actually at Naropa University where I did some online courses, I was hugely skeptical that the courses that I taught—which were very much about practice and change and transformation and realization—would have any impact at all. What I found out was that that was absolutely not true. Some of my closest students today, their lives were opened up not by meeting me personally but over the Internet and through recordings.
I’ve been thinking about that. That was maybe 15 years ago, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot and what I think—and this is going to sound very strange, but this is my experience and I stand by it because I was forced to come to this conclusion, it’s not something I started with—is that in a sense there’s a level of communication that goes on in the universe that is not dependent on the clock, and I think a lot of us know this. We can experience something very freshly today that happened 20 years ago, or sometimes we experience things right now that are not going to happen in the same way for another 5 years.
Many, many people have these experiences. You know, recording is different than video, and a lot of people know this in this culture, but the human voice conveys a tremendous range of experience and I actually believe that when I talk, I’m conveying the fullness of my own experience, and somehow that can be recorded. Even though when we hear a voice, we may be only consciously aware of 2 or 3 percent of the totality of what’s coming through, our body and our psyche registers the other 97 percent or 98 percent.
I’m kind of talking around it, but it’s not an opinion. It’s something that I found over and over: recording can communicate the living moment. Even though the moment of my giving pointing out on the recording—and also we work with pointing out for the rest of the program as you know—and the moment when the person listens to it are not two moments. They’re the same moment experientially. I will take my refuge in quantum mechanics, where we know now that reality is not local and reality is not temporally pinned down. We know that two moments very diverse in time can share the same reality. I mean, we know this from quantum mechanics and I think it’s something that actually applies throughout the cosmos, and it certainly applies in the teaching situation that we’ve been doing.
TS: Well, of course I love hearing this. It makes me ridiculously happy as somebody who’s put most of her life energy into recordings—that actual transmission of realization could be occurring depending on the state of being of the transmitter.
RR: It could be occurring, and in my experience has occurred. It has occurred even before we did the program. I’ve had experiences of that nature when we did Your Breathing Body, which was the 20-CD series a few years ago. There are some moments in there—I didn’t call it “pointing out”—but there are some moments in there where there’s a huge openness in the studio. You and I were here. We felt it. You told me one day that you got sick from the energy that was here, and lo and behold, two or three or four years later I got an email from somebody on mainland China who experienced exactly the same thing. The opening, the vastness of mind and then feeling like we’re going to throw up; throw up because of the input of the energy and the openness. At that point I just gave it up. I mean, I tend to be a very logical person, but I just gave it up because, okay, fine what I thought was just not right. The worst thing I could possibly do was to distrust what was actually going on. So there’s a precedent for it.
TS: Now you make a comment in the Mahamudra series that there are actually three different Mahamudra teachers. There’s the human teacher, and we’ve been talking some about that. But also that life itself, our experience itself is also the teacher, and that the natural state can be a teacher for us. So I wanted to talk about these two other kinds of teachers for a moment. I especially want to talk about how experience, our experience in life can be a teacher, because obviously there are people who have illnesses or go through divorce or career change and they say, “Oh my God, I learned so much. I’m so changed by it. My life is my teacher.” But there are plenty of other people who go through experiences in life and just become bitter or sour. They’re not particularly changed by their experience. So how do we relate to life in an effective way as our teacher?
RR: Well, one question is—when you meet somebody who has been in a very bad accident, or they’ve been ill and it has changed their life, or it often happens too when a long, long-term relationship collapses—what is it about those experiences that make them so impactful? What I think is that—and it is interesting that some people can go through those things and nothing happens, so that’s interesting, but when something does happen and somebody does fundamentally change, what is it about those experiences?
Those experiences, they cut through our version of reality, our wishful thinking, and our fundamental sense of being in control of our lives. That is what changes people. When we are able or we’re forced to relate to experience as being an independent entity in our life, as arriving with information that we can’t hold off, we change.
Now for most people, that only happens in these huge dramatic moments, but through the Mahamudra practice, as we deepen the experience and the happiness of the vast field, the ocean of awareness that lies at the basis of who we are—as we deepen our relationship with that, as we get to know it better, as we learn how to kind of hang out there when we are feeling very constricted and shut down and disconnected, learning how to open back into that space and really heal ourselves on the spot; the more we learn that, the more open we become as people. And the more we begin to realize that when we experience our lives from that depth and from that field of openness, then pretty much everything that happens to us arrives with that message of wake up; a message of meaningfulness or significance, or the message of a deep connectedness with someone else.
Strangely enough, when we truly open our minds to our own experience, the experience itself becomes a kind of fulfillment, moment by moment. In that sense, the experience comes like the human teacher who’s bringing you your life. We really feel that our own human experience is bringing us life in each situation, in each emotion, in each person that we meet.
TS: And the natural state itself as a teacher? How do you see that?
RR: I would say the natural state is a teacher in the sense of reminding us that there is no solid sense of self. That there is no “me” that endures from moment to moment, because we are very intoxicated by our own personal idea of who we are and it’s so interesting for us to experience our full depth, experience the natural state, the awakened state, and to realize that in those moments there is no sense of self, there is no me looking at me and commenting on me; there’s just unconditional openness. It kind of returns us to our fundamental human default state of freedom, and so it’s a teacher in that sense.
And you know particularly—to bring this back to the earth a little bit—I think often after you’ve been practicing the Mahamudra for a while, when you get locked up, something happens to jar you loose and to open you to that depth. It’s almost as if at that point, the awakened state itself is intervening in our experience; when we begin to feel that we’re suddenly very narcissistic, we’re suddenly very self absorbed, we’re not seeing a situation, we’re totally focused on ourselves, we’re totally wrapped in our paranoia, and then all of a sudden there’s this sudden opening into the awakened state. That’s an opening that happens by itself. It’s based on practice, of course, you know—we’re making the journey, we’re doing our daily practice; but it happens by itself.
That experience is like so many experiences that I had with Trungpa Rinpoche when I was in the shut-down state of mind, and he would do something and it would just bust open into freedom, into eternity.
TS: Now you underscore this paradox, in the Mahamudra training, that the awakened state is both impersonal and completely personal at the same time and I’m wondering if you can explain that paradox. How is it impersonal and personal?
RR: Well, to do that I would have to explain the three aspects of Mahamudra experience, and we’ve kind of been talking around it already, but the first one is the openness itself of the fundamental being; the openness of awareness. When we begin to experience that openness of awareness and we make a relationship with it, we begin to notice that that openness has a certain kind of energy to it and that energy is—it’s hard to explain. I mean, we go through it in the programs but I’m going to try to explain it a little bit.
That openness is giving birth, you could say. It’s giving birth to energy. It’s giving birth to inspiration. In other words, the openness of the awakened state is not a static thing; it’s dynamic, it’s always giving rise to things. What it gives rise to is this energetic dimension, and that energetic dimension appears in our life as our human experience. It’s the actual experience of love, or the actual experience of fear, or the actual experience of some kind of inspiration, or the actual experience of the beauty of another person’s face.
The interesting thing is sometimes in spiritual traditions, people think that experience is ego and the openness is not ego; it’s not like that. The openness itself gives birth to experience—the experience before we overlay it with ego and before we start thinking about it the experience itself is also egoless—there is no ego in it. Our human experience—when we see it in an absolutely naked, spare, stripped-down way, it’s incredibly personal because we are the only one having that experience, and yet it’s impersonal in the sense that it’s not being driven by our ego in any shape, way or form, or even influenced by it. It is a paradox. It’s a paradox to be alive, to experience the openness of life, to experience the energy and the beauty and the wonder of life, and to realize that our ego has nothing to do with it. It’s incredibly liberating. It’s also scary, because it means we don’t really have control at that moment.
TS: I’m with you! [RR laughs]
Now, there’s another paradox about this training series that I want to bring forward. This is something I don’t think you and I have talked about directly, and it’s not something that you state in the recording but it’s something that I’ve observed. Part of the premise of this series, Mahamudra for the Modern World, is that this practice is a wonderful fit for our contemporary world, and you list all of the reasons that that’s true. That it fits our hunger for direct experience, that we can learn it directly ourselves, in our body, working with our own experience, etc.
Just to articulate, the training takes 40-some odd hours, and then to do this practice in retreat in a dedicated way takes weeks and weeks a year, and does a practice that requires so much time and energy prove to be a good fit for our modern world? Most people feel that they don’t have the time for this kind of thing. What would be a good fit for my life, says this person, is something I can do in the car while I’m driving into work, or on the subway. Not something that I’m going to mark out 40 hours just to learn the basic practice.
RR: And so what’s the question?
TS: The question is: How is it that the Mahamudra approach is a good fit for the modern world when most people in the modern world don’t feel they have the time for something like this?
RR: Well, first of all I guess I have a couple of questions. One is, do people actually in the modern world want to work on themselves? Do they want this to be part of what they do in life, to learn more about who they are and what life is? Is that of interest to anybody? I would say in the 50s and before, the answer might be no. In other words, I think post-war people felt they just wanted to have a normal life. They wanted be happy and they thought it was doable.
In the 60s, the whole thing broke down and there was a group of young people at that time who felt that that wasn’t good enough, and that there was something in them that wanted more than simply to have the American dream. That has remained a minority for decades, but what I’m seeing now is that more and more of us are looking at the world and we’re seeing a downward trend, and there’s a tremendous sense of uncertainty about what’s going to happen globally and in terms of our own cultures around the world. I don’t think any of us would bet our last dollar that in 10 years things aren’t going to be totally different, and maybe much more difficult. I think there are very few people who think that in 10 years things are really going to be great.
When that happens to you, then you start wondering, “What is my life for?” If there’s been a denial about death and mortality in American culture, I think it’s slipping away because it’s all around us. So I think today there’s much more motivation to work on oneself, and to try to make the most of one’s life in terms of discovering the meaning of life, in terms of experiencing the beauty of the world, in terms of having significant relationships, in terms of growing psychologically.
The question is, where does the Mahamudra fit into that situation, if people do have more inspiration now and are more and more interested in the human journey as a spiritual thing? The interesting thing about the Mahamudra, first, is that almost anything you do is going to change you. I don’t any longer feel—which I did feel for a long time—that the proof or the validity of this tradition is going to be if there are millions of people who become fully enlightened.
I think the more I see about Tibetan culture, the more I realize it didn’t happen there, and the more I see about human life in general, I realize the important point is that there’s a journey that you’re making, and that you’re learning, you’re growing, and your sense of life is deepening. So the Mahamudra really addresses that exact yearning, that longing. If you do five minutes of Mahamudra practice, you’re going to be five minutes closer to being who you are, and to taking joy in you life.
So that’s one thing, and then the second thing is that I think that when you begin doing these practices—let’s say you do—I think a lot of the meditation is like 30 or 40 minutes. So let’s say a few times a week, you do these guided meditations, working your way slowly through the program. At a certain point, you start to realize that on the days when you do the guided meditation, your day is more productive and more happy and more open and more connected. Then you decide, “Well, I think it’s a coincidence.” So you don’t do it for two or three days and you don’t feel that, and then you begin the practice again and you feel it again.
To me, the motivation to carry through the practices doesn’t really have to come from somebody’s willpower. It simply needs to come from the power of your own observation. It’s like if you don’t have breakfast and you don’t have lunch, you know that by late afternoon you’re not going to be feeling that good. On the other hand, if you’re eating you feel better. It’s exactly that way with these practices. At a certain point, the Mahamudra really becomes nourishment for your soul and enables you to begin to live your life in a different way. I think once that realization happens, then people are not so interested in the goal and accumulating thousands of hours practice. They’re interested in this relationship, in this job, in this vacation, and really deriving the full depth of happiness and openness that they’re looking for.
TS: Okay, there are just two more things I want to talk with you about. The first is that you make a strong statement in the program that you don’t believe Tibetan Buddhism can be “replanted” in the West. That Tibetan Buddhism is not like a tree that we can take and plant in different soil. So if Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche didn’t replant Tibetan Buddhism, and if you’re not replanting it through releasing a series of teachings like this, Mahamudra for the Modern World, what are you both doing?
RR: Well, Chogyam Trungpa’s genius was that he understood the difference between Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan techniques, and Tibetan culture on the one hand, and human spirituality on the other. He didn’t see them as the same thing. He felt that all people have a certain capacity that we’re talking about here to experience wholeness and a fullness of human life that Buddhism calls enlightenment; you can call it the awakened state or whatever. He saw Tibetan Buddhism as valuable only insofar as it gave access to that experience, otherwise it’s worthless from his point of view. If it doesn’t actually wake people up and doesn’t bring them happiness and fulfillment, it loses its value.
So the techniques and the social structures, the hierarchy, the patriarchies, the monastic institutions—dare I say, I don’t want to offend anybody, but even the Tulku tradition in Tibet of incarnate Lamas—this whole apparatus isn’t working in the West, and by not working what I mean is it’s not that we’re not learning a tremendous amount from the tradition, but it’s not being replanted and the young Tibetan teachers are not trying to simply reproduce the Tibetan think over here. The more traditional teachers didn’t really know any other way to do it, but the younger ones aren’t.
So in that sense they’re following in the footsteps of Chogyam Trungpa, and what I’m doing is I’m extracting from the tradition really the whole path of practice and leaving aside a lot of the values and a lot of the more ornate complicated ritual forms that really don’t work for Western people. I’m teaching the inner path, the—what we call—Mahamudra path in the Western world, because that doesn’t have all of the apparatus and all of the Asian values and all of the Asian forms. It’s a much simpler and more direct tradition and it also happens to be the highest.
So what I’m doing and what he did was not transplanting something, but using that tradition so that people can see the depth of their own experience and the openness of their own fundamental being and the sacredness of their own human life in the Western or modern world, in this day and age.
TS: And I just want to end on this final note Reggie, which is I’m imagining someone who’s been listening to our conversation and might be asking the question, “I wonder if I’ve glimpsed the awakened state or not? I’m not sure. I’m not sure if I’ve glimpsed my idea of the awakened state or really tasted that experience?” How would you help them know what the litmus test is for that?
RR: The gate to the awakened state on one day and the gate to the awakened state on the next day aren’t going to be the same. If you form an idea that you have experienced the awakened state, then you have lost connection with the depth of your own being. The way to experience the awakened state is to release the necessity to know for certain where you’re at, and who you are, and what you’ve accomplished. That’s the gate to the awakened state. You can look at it as uncertainty, and you can also look at it as the radical openness of human awareness. That we’re never going to be able to come to conclusions about anything in life.
I know for many listeners this is going to seem like a puzzling statement, but the minute you know who your partner is; you know you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. The minute you think you know what love is, or what anything is, because at that moment you’re not open anymore—you’ve come to some conclusion. So in the awakened state, there are experiences of tremendous freedom and openness and there’s no denying it, but we don’t need to pin down the fact of where it is and what it is, and how it fits into everything. The further we go, the more depth we find in this practice around the awakened state, and the more of a journey unfolds from it. So can you let go of the natural egoic tendency to pin everything down and to try to solidify everything, because the more you do so the more you’re going to be able to live in the awakened state.
TS: Wonderful! Thank you! Thanks so much for the conversation!
RR: My pleasure!
TS: I’ve been speaking with Reggie Ray and he has recorded with Sounds True a new 33-CD training course, Mahamudra for the Modern World, an unprecedented training course in the pinnacle teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Reggie is also the author of a book published by Sounds True called Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body, as well as a two-volume series called Your Breathing Body: Beginning Practices for Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Fulfillment, that’s volume one, and then volume two consists of advanced practices.
Reggie will also be with us as a presenter at Sounds True’s inaugural Wake Up Festival, which is happening August 22-26 in Estes Park, Colorado. I feel so pleased about that, that you were willing to join us for the festival. It’s really a treat and it’ll be wonderful to introduce you personally to everybody in the audience. It’s something I’m really looking forward to.
RR: I am too.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many Voices, One Journey. Thanks for listening.