Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Tenzin Rinpoche is the founder and resident teacher of Ligmincha Institute in Virginia, and was one of the first lamas to bring the Bön Dzogchen teachings to the West. Tenzin Rinpoche is renowned for his depth of wisdom, his clear engaging teaching style, and his ability to make the ancient Tibetan teachings highly accessible and relevant to the lives of Westerners. He is the author of several books, including Healing with Form, Energy and Light, and The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. With Sounds True, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche has created an integrated book and CD learning program called Tibetan Sound Healing: Seven Guided Practices to Activate the Power of Sacred Sound, where he gives you the tools to access wisdom and compassion using the vibration of sacred sound to cultivate the healing power within your body’s subtle channels.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tenzin Rinpoche and I spoke about body, speech, and mind, the three doors to practice. We also talked about his experience teaching people all around the world, and especially his experiences with Westerners. We also talked about the idea of inner refuge and what he calls the practice of taking three pills. Here’s my conversation with a great innovator, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.
Rinpoche, you teach in what’s known as the Bön tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. For listeners who are unfamiliar with this tradition, can you give us a sense, a feeling for what this tradition is about and what it focuses on?
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: First of all, thank you for inviting me. I am very happy and honored. So, Bön tradition is the ancient indigenous spiritual tradition of Tibet. According to oral history of Bön tradition, they say it goes back to 17,000 years. And the teachings in the Bön tradition, [are] very similar to other schools in the Buddhist tradition, but there are some [that are] very specific and unique. In Bön, which is very much more ecological, very much earthy, and working with nature, and the spirits of the nature, there are a lot of what we call causal vehicles. It’s more like a form of shamanic traditions, which are also very rich. And then there are, of course, a lot of other transformative practices of tantra. They are very similar to other schools also.
TS: Well, 17,000 years, dating back that far, that’s a very long time. I’m curious, did you see that the tradition changed in some way? Was impacted in some way by the introduction of the written word and books? Was this oral tradition transformed in some way when that happened?
TWR: Absolutely. I think like every oral tradition, when it’s written down—[especially] a real oral tradition which is more intellectual or philosophically oriented—they do get some impact in the process of change. More than, actually, [the] rituals, because sometimes the ritual traditions are more [about] chanting instruments, prayers, and more family to family [over] generations, so they don’t change so much. They keep on doing what [they have] been doing [from] the parents and the grandparents and so on. But when it’s a little more intellectual, and discussion-based, some of them do get changed. So I think there might be some shift changes but I think, as the essence, most of it [is the] same.
TS: Now, you were recognized at a young age as a tulku. Can you explain to us what that means and how this recognition took place?
TWR: Yes, so generally, a tulku means reincarnation, and so it’s quite common in Tibetan tradition. So the way it is recognized is by previous teachers, and a teacher who passed away, they leave something behind saying, “I will be born in such a time in such a family and some signs and places and so on.” Particularly in my case, it was not exactly like that. It was more [because of] my first teacher, Lopon Sangye Tenzin, who was one of the most important teachers in the Bön tradition. And very early, he was the one who recognized me as the reincarnation of Khyung Tul Rinpoche, who was a very important scholar, and he was also the author and published many books.
TS: Did you yourself, or do you yourself, have memories of this previous incarnation?
TWR: I do not have a direct memories. Sometimes I do feel some sense of energy, some blessings, some sense of character personality that I feel may be similar to knowing a little bit about the previous master. So I feel some familiarity, yes, but no vivid memories of [the] past life.
TS: And just continuing here to set the stage for our conversation, can you tell us a little bit about your early life and training?
TWR: So [at a] very early age, when I was four, five, six years old, I was in a boarding school, a Christian boarding school. And my parents took me out from the Christian boarding school at around age 10 or 11, and I came to the Tibetan community and the Bön monastery. So as a teenager I was recognized. It was very, very intense actually—very intense training. As a child, it was really, very difficult to study. There’s not much play time. There’s no other kids to play with. I was living with two older monks who are my teachers. So morning to evening, practicing [steadily] even as a teenager, it was very tough.
TS: And here you are now, keeping this tradition alive and teaching people all over the world. And teaching many Westerners. I’m curious what your experience is like in teaching Westerners. Are there aspects of the tradition that you think Westerners can pick up on very easily, and other aspects that are like, “God, I don’t know if these people will ever get it”? What is your experience like?
TWR: Well, my experience has been different as years pass. In the very early years, the first time I came to the West, I was much more traditional. That [was] the way I have learned, and I was trying to teach exactly the way I’d learned regardless of knowing the backgrounds of people, regardless of knowing where people are coming from, what they needed, but I was really like teaching as I was taught. So it was very difficult when I did that.
And also, it was not so beneficial because people really did not get it. There was a lack of communication. After 20 years, I feel much, much better. So I feel like [there is] more communication. I feel like I can hear them more, I feel them more, I see their needs, what their needs are, and I think it was very much a development. I have also personally learned so much from my students as I teach. So it was a benefit for both sides.
TS: Can you give me a sense of what kinds of innovations or changes you’ve made in the last 20 years in presenting these teachings?
TWR: Sure. Absolutely. One of the things is that, I’m trying to, rather than getting caught up on a specific text, or specific theory, or specific ritual, I’m trying to understand people a little more. I’m trying to look at the person, even if it’s a small group of people, a group of people that I’m talking to, trying to see them, feel them, and trying to sense as much as possible, where they are. And then, I’m just trying to do my best to communicate to their issues, what they’re coming there for and their interests, the things that they are interested to learn.
So in the end, the approach is not so much trying to complete a specific chapter, specific theory, specific concept. In the end, the goal is to try to make sure that they understand some specific practices so that they can apply those practices in their life, so they are able to make some changes in their life, the life that they are living, in that current moment.
So [I’m] trying to very much bring the teaching, the knowledge, right to the point in everyday life and everyday situations in [a] specific person’s situation. That is really more like the approach, which is quite different—what I used to do is not pay attention at all to them, but very much caught up with the specific text. So I loosened up my connection with the text, and trying to connect more with the people. That’s why the essence of what the teachings concern, obviously, you know, it remains the same.
TS: You know, I know this could seem like a very, very broad question, but we’re talking here about keeping the essence of the teachings alive. And I’m wondering if you could summarize for me what you feel that essence is.
TWR: Well, the essence of the teaching, primarily, [is] the wisdom and compassion. So there is a wisdom, the knowledge of wisdom, which is really the most important essence—that which helps to cut the delusion, cut the doubt, cut the ignorance. So that is, I think, the most important, the essence. So that people recognize their true [selves], the nature of their mind, the nature of reality—they understand that truth.
And then the other essential aspect is the compassion that we are not so caught up and focused on ourselves, but trying to open to others and to be helpful and to benefit to others. So that is like the two most important essential points. There are many different ways that one can approach that, but particularly the wisdom is very, very critical. So it’s very important to be, in way, right. The message should be right.
TS: You know, as I’m sitting here listening to you, I’m really appreciating what you are saying about how over the past 20 years your approach has changed, and I’m imagining, you know, you sitting with a group of Western students, and people’s concerns including things like, will they have enough money to live their life and will they be able to have happy relationships, not be lonely. You know, just sort of the standard concerns people have about their health and their families.
I’m curious, given that, because I’m imagining this kind of group of people that you may be with, how has that then affected how you approach delivering the teachings? I mean, I realize that you’re not working with the text in the same way. What are you doing?
TWR: Yeah. So for example—you know, one thing I can say after many years of teaching, I came up with a simple, very profound and very simple approach called [the] “three doors program.” It is actually a program. In this program, basically the whole idea is exactly the same. So what we are trying to do is I teach practices related with their body, very much like—we have five basic exercises. And then there is a nine-cycle of breathing, which is also very much related with the body. So that is a practice of the body. [There is] practice of the speech, trying to be more aware of one’s speech and then also work with more like the vibration of different sounds.
So then the practice of the mind is very much the awareness. So that the state of awareness, the state of rigpa. So [we have] these three practices: body, speech, and mind. And I teach them, and I said, “This is the tool, this is the message, and what you need to do—this will help you to change and transform your life. Not the idea of life, not somebody else’s life, but your own current life that you are living.” I divided that into three [areas]. [The first,] I call it personal, which means some of the things as you said—you know, worried about health, like [your] food habits, and your relation to your self-image, for example. So it’s very much how you see yourself, feel yourself. The second one is the relationship that we live with people—you know, your families and so on. And the third part is the profession, the work that you do, what is your view of your work, what is your view of money, what is your view of other people that you work with. What is your relationship with them, and so on.
So these three areas, I say, you need to transform. People that I have trained in the three doors program, they have to transform 63 points—that means 21 transformations in their personal life. For example, one of the students changed her relationship to food and she lost like 35 pounds in four months. So it’s not like a diet, but it’s the personal relationship with the food that she is changing. Or, like in the family—one person said that she had no connection with her sister for 18 years or something like that, and after she made her things to reconnect through the practices, she was able to reconnect and she has a very decent relationship now [with her sister], thought [they hadn’t] talked for 18 years. Things like this.
So I try to give homework, rather than saying, “Recite this mantra for 100,000 times.” I say, “Transform in your life what you see is necessary to transform. Here is a practice that can be helpful. This is the tool here that you work with.”
TS: I’m very impressed by this, and impressed by your innovation. I’m curious, at any point have you had any fears, you know, “Could I be diluting this tradition,” or is there a precedent for this type of creativity and how the teachings are communicated?
TWR: Absolutely not. Of course, I try to be careful, and I consult with my teachers and elders. But [by] age 10, 11, I had been, [for] my whole entire life, dedicated to teaching and the practices. I do [these practices] myself every day; I’m very engaged with [these] practices. So I know, you know, what is true and what is not true. I am trying to go directly to the point of the teaching rather than having so much background, history, vocabulary, and all those things, rituals and so on. So that is the approach.
And of course, you know, not everybody will understand, but probably more people will understand that approach than a more complicated approach. And also we don’t only [teach] to people who are long-term students of Tibetan Buddhism—we do teach these simple practices like in a prison setting. We have an international prison project, for example.
Or we are doing, [with] some of these tools I have given, research in the Anderson Hospital in Houston, [MD] Anderson Hospital Cancer Center there. The group, they got a funding of over 2 million dollars to do research on some of these exercises I teach. And it’s scientifically shown great [results]. These people who have done the practice, they are not [practitioners]—they are people who are sick and they are going through cancer [treatments]. So it’s benefitting them. So these are real practices regardless of their background or belief, [and] if they are doing the practice in a right way, they are benefitting physically and health-wise. So that is the approach.
TS: Now, I’m curious about the study that is being done at the cancer clinic you mentioned. Can you tell me what practice the participants are doing?
TWR: This is the—they have done, we call it Tsa Lung exercise. Tsa means channels, lung mean wind. So the exercise is with the channels, winds in the body. Energy exercises. There’s a book called Awakening the Sacred Body, [and] there’s a DVD inside, so these are the exercises which we instated at the Anderson.
TS: I’m very curious about these exercises. They are also included in an appendix in the book and CD instructional program you’ve published with Sounds True, Tibetan Sound Healing, and as you’ve mentioned, they work with the inner channel of the body, different channels in the body. I’m curious, could you describe [it] a little bit, if somebody who’s maybe not a practitioner but wanted to just get a sense what the Tsa Lung practice is like?
TWR: Sure. So with the Tibetan Sound Healing book also, which was published by the Sounds True—so we also have another research [team] at the same hospital, Anderson, [and] they have done research on those practices also. And they’ve also shown positive results, like when [patients] go through chemo therapy, they deteriorate their cognitive abilities, so the memory deteriorates, deteriorates memories and so on. So it shows some more positive signs, so they are doing more research on them.
So basically, the idea is that—you know, in our body, there [are] these chakras. We primarily emphasize the five chakras, but you know usually there is seven chakras. So these energy centers in the body—like in the crown, throat, heart, [and] navel, these areas—what we believe [is] they are a specific junction of channels, energy centers, and when you work with the physical exercise, you open then. When you work with a specific breathing exercise in those locations, you open them. When you draw a very clear attention to those areas, [even] without the movement of the body or the breathing exercises, you still open those locations by merely drawing your open attention to those places.
So what is [understood] is that when [they open], there are specific qualities in those locations. For example, in the heart, when you open, there’s more sense of like joy or love. In the throat, there’s more sense of peace. So different emotion states will naturally or effortlessly arrive in these energy centers, because physically and energetically, the blockages are removed. So when these psychological, positive psychological qualities merge, that is what helps people’s [bodies], it helps people’s health, it changes people’s mood, so on. So that is how it is believed.
TS: Then you briefly mentioned the practice of the Five Warrior Syllables and how that’s also being looked at as a study. Can you describe this practice? And why are they called Warrior Syllables?
TWR: The reason why it’s called Warrior Syllables is because, you know, in our life sometimes, people sometimes say, “I’m going through a battle [with] my sickness, or the situation of my divorce, or I’m going through a battle situation in my depression,” where there’s some kind of a big challenge, [a] war kind of, [a] fight, [a] struggle that you are facing in your life. So somehow warrior means that sometimes we feel that we lose, are fearful, are vulnerable, cannot really face that, cannot really process those situations and emotions.
So [we feel] very weak. But if you feel the—[if you] open these chakras, these channels, and those winds and those qualities, then you feel strong. Almost like these inner understandings can actually cut those negativities and ignorance. So that is why it is all called Warrior. It means it can all come—the pain, the suffering, caused by five root poisons, and ignorance. So the warrior means it will go beyond all the ignorance and suffering that it has caused. That’s what it means [to call it] “warrior.”
TS: You talked about these three doors—body, speech, and mind—so would the Five Warrior Syllables be a practice that would fall under the speech door?
TWR: Yes, exactly. So the Five Warrior Seed Syllables fall under speech, in a sense, here. We are talking about a pure vibration of energy, which is very sacred, which has a power to open and reconnect with certain qualities that which is hidden in us.
TS: So in the practice, we work with each one of these five syllables and then we put it altogether in some way?
TWR: Yes, absolutely. So the five syllables are like, the first is a, the second is om, the third will be hung, fourth will be ram and the fifth dza. So basically the concept is that, for example, if somebody wants to live [a] joyful, happy life—which we all want to live a happy life, but sometimes we don’t—is you cannot force yourself to live happy unless [that] quality of happy is ripe in you. So that’s the last one. Dza is action, but you cannot have those actions unless [they are] ripened, [which happens with] the syllable ram. You cannot ripen those qualities such as joy, unless you have connection [with these qualities], or you feel this connection inside yourself. So that is the hung, the third syllable. And you cannot have this quality unless you feel some sense of [being] more full, or complete, or worth within yourself, that clarity, that light, so that is the second syllable, the om. You cannot feel that sense of complete or feeling worth or feeling full unless all the obscurations are cleared.
So [an] example would be, first you have to clear this cloud. If [the] clouds are clear, the sun will naturally shine. So clearing clouds would be the syllable a. And then sun shining will be syllable om. Then feeling the warmth of sun will be the sound hung, so that you feel the quality in your heart, like joy or warmth. And then ram will be mature enough to ripen the fruit, so if the sun shines enough and hits the fruit tree, at some point it will ripen the fruit. So that is the ram and the dza. So [this is] very specific map that [can help you] achieve everything, anything, but you do have to follow the structure of this five-step structure, the map. And most of the time, we want something—fruit—but we don’t know how to create the cause and conditions to have that fruit.
TS: And is this practice is thousands of years old?
TWR: Yes, absolutely, thousands of years old. And you know, these specific explanations of these seed syllables are very old. So what I’m trying to do is to bring this more [into people’s] personal lives. So the main thing I’m trying to do is not always talk [about] mediation on a cushion, but trying to bring [into] life—trying to bring the meditation [into] action.
You know, you don’t have to dig your problem, but if your problem is coming to you, then you have to recognize [it]. The only way you can overcome your problem when it comes to you [is to] recognize that it’s coming to you. And dealing with it, with the practices.
TS: So what you’re saying is that I don’t only work with these Warrior Syllables when I’m on the cushion, but I somehow work with them in the midst of my everyday life?
TS: Can you give me an example of that?
TWR: Yes, of course. For example, let’s say I go to the office and I meet a colleague or boss [with whom] I have a little bit challenging relationship. The moment you find yourself in that situation, immediately your body is contracting, you’re more likely to do or say something not right. So that would be our normal reaction. So [at] that very moment, I say, be aware. Be aware of the a. Feel the vibration a. Feel that meaning of a, which is the space. Just feel a moment of spaciousness.
So you draw attention inward and feel that spaciousness. The moment you feel the spaciousness, you’ll feel that sun, that awareness. You’ll feel that warmth, like some sense of joy or warmth. And that warmth will show you something. It’s not something that you need to think [about] to do at that moment, how to act, but the right action will come out from that spaciousness and stillness if you trust that rather than asking your fear and your anxiety and your ego to asking what to do. So if you apply it that way, in that moment, yes, that is how life changes.
TS: Now, Rinpoche, you teach all over the world, and I’m curious, do you find that people in different parts of the world are more or less easy to teach?
TWR: I think in some sense, all the people are people—[they have] similar situations [and] problems and, you know, similar [ways] they work with the practices. So in some sense they’re very similar. Of course, each country has some characteristics [that are] different. You know, some are more intellectual, some are more emotional, but you know some interesting things—[like] how in Poland, like in South America or something like that. I just recently came back from Peru, Chile, and Columbia. there are a lot of younger people [there who are] very much engaged, in terms of the age group, much more than in the United States. So somehow, I don’t exactly what the reason [is], but there are more younger people engaged with the spiritual development. You know, it’s difficult to say. Some basic things are [the] same in everybody.
TS: Do you have a high degree of confidence that these teachings will continue generation upon generation beyond you, based on what you’re seeing in the world now?
TWR: You know, I think that is absolutely—I hope, I pray, and also I try to adapt a little bit to the society as far as the presentation of the teachings and the relation to the teaching. And I think [though] those presentations and those relationships, I hope that the teaching will maintain its essence to help a lot of people in the future, you know?
So sometimes every person who is part of a very ancient tradition like myself and my teachers, we all have—sometimes we suffer, and we all feel like it’s very difficult to kind of see how we can preserve and keep it so that it will not disappear from the face of the earth. So it’s always challenging. And sometimes there are some changes [that we don’t necessarily like], but it kind of happens or needed to happen. So personally, I try to be more a part of those changes [rather] than disliking, rejecting, criticizing, complaining about that changes. I just try to be part of those changes and do so to try to, instead of trying to controlling the change, be part of trying to change the best way it can be changed, you know?
TS: Yes. Now, in the Tibetan Sound Healing book, in this appendix in which you teach the Tsa Lung exercises, there was one sentence that I found very, very interesting. And you know this based on my own experience, but I’d love if you commented on it. Here’s what you wrote: “Abiding in the central channel of the body, is the discovery of inner refuge.” I wonder if you could speak to that?
TWR: Yes. First of all, the notion of inner refuge is—I talk about the stillness in our body, the silence in our speech, the spaciousness in our heart. So these are what I say are the three doors through which we can go deep inside ourselves, and deep inside means through the stillness of our body, we can reach an unbounded sacred space. Through the silence of our speech, we can reach this inner peace and what I call like infinite light, infinite awareness. And through the spaciousness, the door of the spaciousness of our heart, we will reach, in that, a warmth—that inner bliss. So these three places, three experiences, or three realizations are inner refuge.
And no matter what [your] spiritual background, what belief background you have, it does not matter. Every single individual has these inner refuge experiences. Some are able to access them. Some are [not] able to access them. Some are able to access easier, some are able to access in a little bit [more] difficult way, but we all have them. So these three places, as far as the channels are concerned, these inner three channels represent them, these three experiences. And the central channel especially represents the most pure aspect of awareness. It’s in our central channel.
So when we connect that, it is our inner refuge. That means it will help protect us [during] moments of challenge. It will guide us [in the] moment when we don’t know what to do. And it will show every step of our life. The right thing will be there. The right situation will be there if it able to trust and be in that awareness.
TS: I’m wondering. Rinpoche—this is the last thing, and I’m going to ask you favor, and if it feels OK to you, which is, I wonder for listeners who have not discovered yet what it feels like to touch, let alone abide, in the central channel in their body, is there a practice that you could talk us through right now that would give people a chance to experience that, to touch that?
TWR: Yes, absolutely. First of all, I would say a few words, and then if somebody says, “I forgot that I can’t remember what he said,” I’ve put something on YouTube. It’s called So in the American Western world, people eat a lot of vitamins, people eat a lot of pills, so I said, three pills: white pill, red pill, and blue pill. So the white pill is the stillness of the body, the red body is the silence of the speech, and the blue pill is the spaciousness of the heart, spaciousness of the mind. So I said, every day, whenever you face a specific challenge in your life, look that challenge not as an exit, but entrance to yourself, entrance to that inner refuge, inner sacred space within you. And so, for example, somebody said a very mean word to you or did something very not nice, the normal reaction would be to immediately look at the person, and we look at [them] through our fear, angry, anger, and we look at what they did. That is normally what we will do. [We] always do that.
So instead of doing that, the moment you are almost ready to do that, just remember to take three pills. You look inside. You look inside and you remember these three things: white pill, what do you do? You just immediately listen to your body. Connect with your body. Just feel the stillness. Of course, you have to be still, your body has to be still. And feel that stillness for a moment. And then, you listen to the silence. Of course, you know, there might be sound or voices around, voices in your head, but if you listen to the silence, you hear it, like this very moment. And then you draw your attention to your heart, and feel the spaciousness. The heart is always open. [As] you draw attention there, you’ll feel a degree of openness. Sometimes you will [feel] more, sometimes you will [feel] less, but you will feel.
At [that] moment, feel all three or any of the three, this will help you, guide you. You know, like to find that inner refuge, this will guide you to know what to do. It’s not like a specific thing, like sometimes we say, “Oh, I cannot just go into the stillness but I need to know what to do with this moment.” But it will help you what to do, you know?
You will be surprised the message that you will get. You will feel protected. You will know what to do and you will be surprised how you got the message [about] what to do. So that is, I think at least, why I recommend to people to make a commitment to yourself, [to] say, “I will take these three pills at least three times a day. If it’s necessary, I will take more, but three times a day, I will make myself commit.” So at end of the day, before you go to sleep, remember, did you take your three pills today? That would be my advice.
TS: Very good. Rinpoche, thank you so much for sharing a bit of yourself. and I just want to commend you for being so pioneering and finding so many ways to communicate and connect. Thank you.
TWR: Thank you so much.
TS: Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche has created a book and accompanying CD called Tibetan Sound Healing: Seven Guided Practices to Clear Obstacles, Cultivate Positive Qualities, and Uncover Your Inherent Wisdom. Thank you for being with us on Insights at the Edge. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.