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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Lama Tsomo: Finding the Ocean of Joy: Tibetan Buddhist Practice for Westerners
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Lama Tsomo. Born Linda Pritzker, Lama Tsomo was ordained during an investiture ceremony in Nepal in 2003 after a decade of studying under the tutelage of Gochen Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, world holder of the Namchak lineage of Tibet. She’s the cofounder of the Namchak Foundation, an organization dedicated to giving people tools for reducing suffering, increasing happiness, and generally waking up through online courses and retreats in various locations, including the Namchak Retreat Ranch in western Montana. She’s the author of two books: The Princess Who Wept Pearls: The Feminine Journey in Fairytales, and a new book called Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?: A Westerner’s Introduction and Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Practice.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Lama Tsomo and I spoke about her teacher, Gochen Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, and the time he spent imprisoned by the Chinese, what he learned from the experience, and what we can all learn about karma, taking responsibility for our lives, and transforming resentment. We also talked about the science behind visualization practice, and working with deity images as archetypes, [as well as] mantra as archetypal sound. We talked about the scientific work of David Bohm, and being “waveicals”—both waves and particles—and what Bohm’s discoveries have in common with the view of Tibetan Buddhism. Finally, we talked about motivation on the spiritual path and in life, and how clarifying our motivation can lead to happiness. Here’s my conversation with Lama Tsomo:
Lama Tsomo, I think for many listeners, it’s unusual for them to meet someone who is an American-born woman and now a Lama. To begin with, I’m wondering if you can share with our listeners a bit about becoming a Lama and what it means to be a Lama.
Lama Tsomo: Sure. So, I’ll start with becoming a Lama—what’s involved with that. It’s actually quite an extensive training. Being one of the few who has done all this, I happen to be one of the first American students to be lucky enough to study with Gochen Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, who is my teacher even today.
Many years ago, I met him and I became his first American guinea pig to try out all these Tibetan practices on. I would finish one and it would just—it benefitted me so much that I wanted to do the next one and the next one. I would do one retreat after another and just feel so much better and happier, and better able to meet life’s challenges and painful moments and so on—and just live with generally more joy and tuning into the sea of love that we’re all bathing in, actually—an ocean of awareness, that kind of thing. It’s very hard for us to tune in to; it certainly was for me. These practices were so extremely helpful that I just wanted to do the next one and the next one. It’s a graduated path. The medicine was stronger and stronger as I went.
I would keep saying to Rinpoche, “I don’t feel like I mastered this last stage. Are you sure I’m ready for the next one?” And he was like, “Yes, yes. You can go with the next one. You don’t have to perfectly master it. You’re ready for the next one.” So I thought, “Well, he knows what he’s doing. He’s trained a whole lot of students before, and he knows my mind.” He watched over me very closely in my retreats, and in-between and so on. [He] was training me very closely because there weren’t a lot of students doing all of these at the time—like, nobody else. So, I was really lucky to have that level of his focus on me. He’s an amazing, gifted teacher as well as practitioner and scholar.
The total training, traditionally, is three years, three months, and three days of retreat. So that means 24/7, basically—other than when you’re eating or sleeping, you’re doing these practices. So, when you want to learn a new language, you want to do total immersion. If you want to change the pathways in your brain, whether it’s learning a new language or learning a new way to be and to live life and to do yourself, it’s really the same thing. It also requires daily practice. Even when I wasn’t in actual formal retreat, I still was doing daily practice. It’s just the same with learning a foreign language, for the same reasons really—about the neural pathways and neuroplasticity and so on.
So, by now, I’ve done more than three years, three months, and three days, but I did all of the levels as well of training that needed to be done. So, I’ve done all of that retreat, and mostly it was solitary retreat, according to the strict Tibetan rules of retreat—with, as I said, Rinpoche watching closely over me to make sure I was—especially during the advanced practices—correctly or—you know, it’s kind of a “don’t try this at home” thing, until you’ve had good training. So, by the time I finished all of that, then he—as my kids say—he “Lamanated” me. That happened first in Nepal, then he wanted to do it again here in the States in Montana. So the first—the one in Nepal—happened in 2005.
TS: Lama Tsomo, I’m curious: for many Western people, the practices of Tibetan Buddhism seem quite foreign—working with colorful deities, doing chants in another language. How was all of that for you? How did all of that become incorporated in your own experience?
LT: I’m glad you asked that. I was really very lucky; I have always been fascinated by archetypes and discovered Jung when I was 15. [I] read a lot of Jung; actually had that as my emphasis when I did my master’s degree program in counseling [psychology.]
So, for me, I’m comfortable with the archetypal level of things, and working with archetypal image and sound, and so on. That’s really what we’re talking about.
So, when there’s a ferocious deity and it’s got long eyeteeth and flaming hair and it’s dark blue, and it’s got long nails and so on—and yet it’s an enlightened being. But, it’s known as a wrathful deity. They’ve got a lot of ferocity; but that same deity often has a peaceful form, in which case they’re beautiful and surrounded by flowers and they’re a different color, and the eyeteeth are a normal size—that kind of thing. So, all of these things, to me, weren’t so foreign. I mean, it still was in a way, but at least I had that bridge. That was really helpful for me.
So, I remember distinctly at one point, I was in meditation retreat in Nepal, and I was doing a practice with a deity, and I was saying a mantra—which by the way is foreign also for Tibetans because it’s Sanskrit, which is considered archetypal sound. I’ll get into that a little bit.
But anyway, what these things do is help us to tune in to the channel of, let’s say, Green Tara, who is this wonderful Earth-mother goddess sort of deity. She’s green and she has one foot outstretched as though she’s ready to leap to the aid of us as her children as soon as we call on her. That’s an example of one archetype. The Great Mother is an archetype that you find all over the world.
The archetype itself is hard for us to tune in to because it’s kind of ineffable. It’s a principle of reality. So, we use archetypal image, archetypal sound—anything to help ourselves to be able to tune in to that channel. That’s what I loved about deity practice—is that it was helping me to tune in to this more perfect principle of reality level. It gave me a way to do that because normally, we’re kind of stuck on this channel and we don’t have the channel-changer. Right? So, to be able to use these methods to go to the Green Tara channel, or the Vajrasattva channel, or the Guru Rinpoche channel—whatever it might be—is a wonderful set of tools to be able to have.
Of course, in Tibetan Buddhism, which is quite ancient, the tools are very highly developed and refined. Getting back to when I was in retreat and doing deity practice in Nepal, I remember at this one moment, it just struck me. I thought, “My god, these techniques are so highly refined and honed and effective. I’m just stunned. This is way beyond anything I’ve experienced in my training as a psychologist.” I was just marveling. And then I thought, “Wait a second. When did Jung live? When did Freud live? [When did] any of the fathers of modern psychology, compared with the Buddha or even Padmasambhava—who brought Buddhism to Tibet and really was the one who took advantage of these methods—practicing with deities?” So I thought, “Well, no wonder it’s so much more developed, and it’s effective.”
Also then, later—
TS: You’re saying it’s more developed because of its ancient roots, because it’s an older tradition?
LT: They’ve been at it longer. Millions of people have been practicing this, and these enlightened masters have put this together and then worked with a large population of people. I think we human beings, if we can stand on the shoulders of the ones before us and keep developing and enhancing methods, they can get better. We can develop them. So, they had a chance to do that for longer than we did. Again, we’re talking about archetypes and affecting deep transformational change using archetypes.
TS: I’m curious: I’m sure you’ve come into contact with students who have this kind of response. I certainly have come into contact with many people who have this response, which is, “You know, I’m an American. I speak English. This all feels like a different culture—a culture that’s outside of my own background and upbringing. It’s just too big a bridge to cross. It feels like I’m taking something on that’s not really mine.” So, I’m wondering: when you have a student that has that kind of response, how [do] you work with that?
LT: A couple of different ways. Everybody’s different, and even the Buddha set forth different paths for different students because, even at that time and place, not everybody was the same. We just have different natural proclivities. I happen to be able to learn Tibetan, but my gosh, I wouldn’t expect anyone else to have to be able to do that just to take advantage of these tools, for example.
But also, I don’t believe that Tibetan Buddhism is for everyone. That said, if the tools themselves are of benefit to somebody, then I’d like to be able to make those available to Westerners who speak English, which is why I wrote the book. I didn’t want other people to have to go through going to Nepal, learning Tibetan, sitting in years of retreat, and all that kind of thing, in order to be able to put this together. I wrote the book with my younger self in mind, who had wanted this and it wasn’t available when I was learning. I had to wait until I was in my mid-forties and stumble upon Rinpoche and follow this whole path. I wanted to provide that for Westerners who wanted to live in America and were fine with speaking English, and still wanted to take advantage of these methods because they’re great methods. And Rinpoche, when he was first teaching me, was saying, “I’m not giving you a religion,”—which by the way, I think is kind of a culturally based thing. He said, “I’m giving you a set of tools.” So, that’s what I did. I took on those tools.
At one point, I remember having a bit of a crisis—kind of a guilt crisis as a person having grown up Jewish. I was sitting there doing my morning meditation, and I suddenly realized, “I think I know more Tibetan words than Hebrew,” which it didn’t take much, by the way. It was kind of a terrible moment, when I was like, “Oh my gosh, what’s happening here?”
TS: Oy vey!
LT: And then I thought—wait, right? [Laughs.] And then I thought, “Wait a second. My eyes are still going to be round, my hair is still going to be curly and frizzy. I’m still going to have my cultural background that I have, which I like.” I’m comfortable with it. I’m happy with being Jewish. I still like to go to Passover and eat too much, and go to the High Holiday services. There are some really meaningful ones that I think are just great.
But also, I’m just culturally Jewish. That’s mainly it. And I like that. And I’m culturally American, and I like that too. So I didn’t feel like I had to give up any of that stuff in order to take advantage of these incredibly effective, highly developed tools. So, I get to be a really happy, satisfied American who’s living a much more meaningful life than I would have otherwise.
TS: You mentioned, Lama Tsomo, archetypal sound in terms of the Sanskrit mantras, and also that the deity images themselves in Tibetan Buddhism are, in your work with them, archetypal. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your understanding of working with archetypes and archetypal sound, and how that changes us.
LT: Yes. So, after that moment that I described in Nepal where I was sort of marveling at the effectiveness of these tools—I happen to be friends with Richie Davidson, who is a neuroscientist who works with the Dalai Lama, and he himself has meditated all of his adult life. He directed me to the work of Stephen Kosslyn, who wrote a book called The Case for Mental Imagery. I was excited to read that book—but again, this is something I wouldn’t ask other people to read, even though it’s in English. [Laughs.] It gets very science-y and nerdy.
Basically, I was excited to see that when we see something actually in front of us, or when we visualize something—let’s say it’s the same thing. We’re imagining a beautiful woman, such as Green Tara, or we just visualize it. It turns out that the same parts of the brain light up as we do it. There are a lot of other effects that are the same. So, that means—when you think about it—that means that we can set up the perfect experiences for ourselves to create deep change in the brain, in the mind, in our experience.
In other words, every day when I sit on the cushion, I can go through this experience that has been very carefully and deeply put together—thoughtfully put together by these realized masters, and honed over these long ages of time—that happen to be very effective at going deep into the brain—much deeper than the frontal lobes, where speech is and concepts are and that kind of thing. It coordinates different parts of the brain, so as to begin to have this orchestration of many parts of the brain to create deep change. We begin to work differently. This has been proven out in many laboratories where they’ve found that the brain begins to do its dance—that various parts of the brain do the dances differently, and desirable parts of the brain actually get measurably larger in not all that long [a period], in some cases. That’s very exciting to me as a psychotherapist as well as just a human being—and a lama.
TS: Thank you, that’s helpful. You mentioned, Lama Tsomo, your teacher, Gochen Tulku Sangak Rinpoche. I’m curious to know a little bit more about him. In reading your book, Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?, I was impressed about what a remarkable person he is, and quite a remarkable personal history. I wonder if you can share with our listeners maybe a few points about his history, because I think they’ll be very interested.
LT: Yes. Just in meeting him, I didn’t know about his history before. I just found that he was very simple, straightforward, and to the point. No frills. Wasn’t interested in being charismatic or anything. He is just all about helping. Sometimes, it’s as simple as helping somebody to carry this thing over there. It’s just whatever is in front of him. Or it can be as profound as sitting with somebody who is dying and being incredibly—what is the word?—well, compassionate and empathetic, with absolutely no sentimentality or pity or anything like that, but just really present with them and holding them in it. That’s a beautiful thing.
I remember—he didn’t know any English, and he was staying with me at the time and the neighbors were having a little get-together. So, I took him down there and he—I looked over and I thought, “Oh, the poor guy. I should be translating.” He was sitting on the floor with the kids just playing, just fine. No problem. He’s got this vast range, is what I’m saying. Anything from this very ordinary, everyday stuff to the fact that he is one of the premiere Dzogchen teachers and many Tibetan lamas know this.
For those who know about Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who [was] the head of the Nyingma lineage, my teacher served him for 14 years as he was building the Shechen Monastery in exile. Rinpoche had a lot of responsibility, as you can imagine. So, he learned Dzogchen from a master in prison, and that master was really one of the great hidden lamas of the 20th century. But then Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was also one of the great Dzogchen masters, and Rinpoche learned from him as well. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s grandson then, many years later after Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche passed, asked my teacher, Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, to teach their teachers the system according to his grandfather so that they could be sure to have it as pristinely as possible.
So, there’s some of his scholarly and deep practice and profound mastery on display there, in contrast with sitting on the floor with the neighbor’s kids. One thing that I was really struck by was the story of his time in prison. That’s why I talked about it in the book, because he said that was really when he came to the dharma and took it to heart in a much deeper way—even though he grew up with it, he was already a reincarnated lama. He knew that from when he was a tiny toddler and could barely speak.
But then as a 13-year-old, he was thrown in prison by the Chinese and he was put together with all the other greatest threats to society, which were the other lamas. So, he was able to study with them, which was a good thing because—as you can imagine—if a 13-year-old resents having to do the dishes, can you imagine how resentful he felt of the Chinese? And he said his resentment burned in his heart like a hot poker. Since happiness and suffering happen on the inside—you know, we experience it inside of our minds and our hearts—he said that was his experience, and it didn’t matter so much what was happening on the outside. He was in pain—terrible pain—on the inside. The most painful thing about it wasn’t actually, technically speaking what the Chinese were doing or the small amount of terrible food, and so on and so forth. It was his resentment.
So, a couple of lamas took him under their wings and helped him to do practices, which he did avidly because he needed to. He was suffering, and he found that the more he practiced, the more that resentment was melting away. So, he did it even more avidly. He got to the point where he was able to actually turn it around and see things very differently. For example, this one lama—who, again, was one of the great hidden lamas of the 20th century—he asked him simple questions like, “OK, you resent the guards and you wish them ill. Let me ask you something: how is it that you came to be here in this situation? I mean, are they actually responsible? How could this have happened if you hadn’t planted the karmic seeds in some lifetime—who knows when?”
So, that’s an interesting thing, because we have to take it out of the Judeo-Christian sort of guilt-trippy thing and realize that in a previous life, he wasn’t exactly him. You know? It was—the way reincarnation is understood is sort of like a wave going up and down. The wave here is, once it’s gone up and down a few times and it’s now over there, that’s not the same water and the wave isn’t the same shape. And yet, we say it’s the same wave. So, reincarnation is a little bit ineffable like that; it’s hard to say that, “I am me in this life, and I also was me in that life.” It’s not that clear. It’s more subtle than that.
But anyway, in some lifetime—God knows when—he planted the karmic seeds that had come to ripen. And if that hadn’t been the case, it wouldn’t be possible for him to be in that situation. So. if that’s the case, then that sort of empowers a person. As soon as we take responsibility in a situation, we actually empower ourselves. That’s—by the way—a little plug for forgiveness, which we all need to be able to do more of.
So, he then could take some more responsibility and say, “OK, so here I am in this situation. There are things that I can do so that I can feel better in this situation, so I’m just going to pay attention to that.” But on top of that, he said, “OK, let’s take this karmic thing a little further. The guards are now planting the karmic seeds for them to experience something at least as bad as this in the future. If you watch, if you really look at them, they’re not even happy in the moment that they’re doing this. So, they need your compassion more than you need the compassion. You’re burning off karma. They’re acquiring it, and they’re not even happy while they do it.”
So, Rinpoche really thought about that, and that made sense to him. The other thing that was happening more and more was that as he was practicing these methods, he was feeling happier and happier until he was actually, he said it was like he went from a Hell Realm to some kind of a—it’s called [inaudible] in Tibetan, so “pure land,” I think, is the usual English translation. He was thinking, “You know, if I stay here the rest of my life, I’m OK. I feel fine.” And he marveled at the fact that, actually, his outer circumstances hadn’t changed at all. All of the change had happened on the inside, because that’s where happiness and suffering do happen.
TS: Lama Tsomo, I think a lot of Westerners have trouble with this idea of karma as “I’m responsible for some terrible situation I happen to be in.” The illness of a young child or something like that. Really? It’s something when they were a wave in a previous lifetime? I think it offends people, and yet I hear the power in what you’re talking about in terms of us not blaming and taking full responsibility for our situation. Whatever it is, at least to be responsible in it, not to create harm but to create goodness wherever we find ourselves. But what would you say to that person who says, “This idea that something that happened in a past life that I’m taking responsibility for now—I can’t get behind that”?
LT: Well, I’m going to start from the other end of things—the Judeo-Christian background. Particularly, I would have to say. through the culturally Christian background, which we all have some of because this is a predominantly Christian society—there’s the understanding of original sin, which I couldn’t figure out; it didn’t make any sense to me and I was born into this culture. I may not be the right person to ask about any of this. The other thing that never made sense to me was the idea that God knows what’s best for us and God has a plan, and it’s all for the best. When a child is sick and maybe dies, how are we supposed to buy into that? That to me doesn’t make any sense. And yet, people are born into such widely different circumstances that they couldn’t be responsible for "before that" unless there was a whole lot of history before that.
What I can sign up for is the idea that consciousness doesn’t end when the body dies. The work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, I think, points to that. There’s another book written by a neurosurgeon who himself was brain dead for a week and he had never been even remotely religious before that. He wrote a book called Proof of Heaven—an account of his own experiences while he was checked out for a week.
So, let’s just start with the idea that consciousness isn’t something that ends when the brain dies. If we say that, as soon as we say that, then we have to say, "Well, OK, so then is there only one time that we inhabit a body? Does that make sense?" If this consciousness is eternal or certainly probably very, very long-lived—if that’s the case, and we don’t remember from one lifetime to the next, we know that for sure (at least most of us don’t). Rinpoche remembered his past lives, but most of us don’t.
But anyway, if we don’t remember what we did, there’s another factor. But if we’ve been kicking around the universe for, let’s say, I don’t know—how long would we say? A million years? A billion years? It’s hard to say because when would that consciousness stop? But let’s say it’s been incalculably long. That’s given us time to incarnate in all manner of forms and do everything at least one, probably many, many times.
So then I begin to take it all less personally. It’s like all of us have been circulating and recycling consciousness throughout a very long eternity and we’ve had the chance to be everything and do everything; so we’ve been wonderful and terrible, and everything in between.
So, the Tibetans don’t take it so personally—and I don’t either, actually—when some karma from who-knows-when bubbles up and now this is what I have to live out. Here’s how I think of karma: it’s like it leaves its traces on our consciousness when we commit either a mental or physical act. So, that would be inescapable. Even after we die, that trace will continue and it shapes—the habits of our mind shape how our inclinations are and so on. Therefore, what kind of body or circumstance we’ll land in the next time—they say the consciousness in the bardo is like a feather in a wind tunnel and anybody who’s fallen asleep and dreamed at night knows how much control we have over what we’re going to dream.
The bardo state is a lot like that. By the time we get through that and into the next life, we have no control; it’s going to be whatever inclinations and habits of mind happened to be propelling us. We don’t mean to land in an unfortunate lifetime or this, that, or the other circumstance, or even a good circumstance; it’s just kind of what happens by the time we get shot out the other end of the wind tunnel. Is this helping to make sense of it?
TS: It has helped me. I appreciate the perspective. It’s a very big view that you’re offering when you talk about how we’ve been in so many different kinds of lifetimes and different roles. It opened my mind hearing you describe that.
Now, I want to circle back, because I was so moved, actually, in reading about Rinpoche’s transformation in prison. Even just the title of your book, Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?—the ability for someone to be in a terribly suffering situation in the case of the Dalai Lama with the people of Tibet being under Chinese rule, and yet here he is on the cover of your book, smiling—and your description of Rinpoche finding peace and happiness in prison. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that, and particularly to people who are listening and feel, “You know, part of me feels resentful of X-Y-Z in my life. I don’t have as much money as my neighbor and I wish I did,” or, “I have these terrible responsibilities that are a burden that I don’t like,” or whatever it might be. How might they work with their resentment?
LT: Yes. That’s a big one. Actually, I’m going to have a whole section in book two, because Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling? is actually going to be a series of three books. So, in book two, I want to really focus on the process of forgiveness. It’s a very big subject, and I’ve certainly had to forgive people in my life, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. As a psychotherapist, I’ve gotten a front-row seat in listening to the stories of one person after another. I remember, with each case, thinking to myself as I’m listening to this person—I’m thinking, “That should never happen to anyone.” You know, as they’re describing their life.
And yet we all have these painful situations we grew up with, painful situations and people we’re faced with today, any day. It seems to be part of human existence. And not even just human beings—if you really look at animals, you could say the same for animals.
In any intimate relationship—and it could also be work relationships and so on—there are going to be moments where you have to be able to forgive somebody because they’ve done something that hurts. It can be that they didn’t mean to, sometimes they did mean to. The problem is if you don’t forgive them, then you’re carrying around this burden of resentment and of all the forms of stress that you could pick, that is the most detrimental to your own longevity, to your own happiness, and [to] your own capacity for love. In a sense, your heart shrinks smaller because you’re excluding that person. It’s like, “Yes, I love everybody, but not them.”
On the other hand, you shouldn’t be asked to forget that it happened. Forgiveness is not the same as having amnesia. It’s not about that. It’s about simply finding a way, truly, to forgive them and once again live with an open heart. Because we want to live with an open heart, so we’re doing it for ourselves first and foremost, not to do a favor to the person who hurt us. It’s not really about that. It’s a decision we make in ourselves. The hardest part, I think, is letting go of righteous wrath and making a decision. “You know what? This isn’t worth it. I don’t want to live like this and feel like this. This is toxic. I’m going to let go of this.”
There are a few books—unfortunately, not enough of them—on forgiveness, as far as just simple stages that you can move through. Dr. Fred Luskin did studies at Stanford—very interesting studies with mothers of sons who were killed in Ireland during the conflict there, for example. And, wow. That’s a tall order for them to be able to forgive. And yet, the ones who signed up for the study found it—they personally reported that they found it incredibly helpful. And he does very methodically and realistically take you through steps so that once you do decide you want to forgive and let go of this grudge that you’re holding, you can move through and out the other side and be a loving person. That’s what we all want to be; it just feels better.
TS: I’m curious, Lama Tsomo, if you’d be willing to share a letting go of resentment or forgiveness from your own life, and how that worked for you.
LT: Yes. So, I was in a retreat—a Dzogchen retreat in solitary retreat. And I’m telling you something: when you sit in the crucible of retreat and you turn up the heat with these practices, and you're all alone doing these practices day in and day out, anything you resent is going to come to the surface, along with anything else. There’s no hiding from it, right?
So, I was sitting there, and there was a person who I was close to and cared a lot for who I had been ignoring the fact that they had actually been kind of making war on me for several years. I’d been sort of having my head in the sand about it because I didn’t want to believe it. You know, you just can’t hide in that situation, as I said. So, up came this awareness: “Oh my gosh. It’s so clear to me. This person has been making war on me for several years. This person who I love and care about.” They say that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference.
So, all of the sudden, I felt this burning resentment; I mean, I was furious. I felt almost like this wildfire was raging through my whole nervous system, and my whole self was on fire with resentment. I was just furious. And I thought, “Oh my gosh. I don’t want to feel this. This feels awful. I want to get rid of this as quickly as possible.” And I wasn’t thinking in terms of, “Oh, I want to forget that this person is doing this.” At that point, that wasn’t what I was about. And it wasn’t about pardoning them or condoning their behavior or anything like that. It was just like, “Ick, this is horrible, this feeling. I’ve got to get rid of this.”
Fortunately, I was just at a point in my practice where—I mean, in that session—where I was doing Vajrasattva practice, which is a practice using an archetype for cleansing ourselves of karma, illness, ill will, ill feelings—anything. So, I thought, “Well, this seems like good medicine.” So, I happened to apply that practice, but it’s not the only one you can use. It’s just, I was sitting there doing that, so that’s the one I used.
I sat there, and it’s a very powerful one, and I was feeling so strongly that it became much more powerful. I find that the more strongly I need a practice and I’m experiencing something that I’m applying the practice’s medicine for, the more strongly transformational it is. So, I was doing this with all my heart; you can believe it. And it just completely shifted things. There was almost like this whirlwind of—well, it’s hard to describe and I don’t want to go through the whole visualization or anything, but I was using that visualization and it was really helping the process in a way that talk therapy with a therapist would not have been nearly as effective. This is a case of applying visualization and mantra so that I could affect deep, real change.
And sure enough, by the end of that session, I was feeling utterly peaceful and my heart was feeling loving. I was feeling love and compassion for this very person. I thought, “Really? Could it have happened that quickly?” So I thought, “OK, I’m going to try this on for size.” When I had imagined a conversation with them at the beginning of this process, even though it sounded sort of politically correct—the words—it was like battery acid because I was so resentful. But by the end, when I imagined talking with them, I was just feeling love. It was amazing.
And the other interesting thing is, the next time I talked with them, I thought, “Oh, let’s see how I do the dance with them now, since I’ve done that whole experience.” And the thing was, they didn’t even give me a chance to do myself differently because they were already acting toward me differently, which I thought was very, very interesting. I thought, “Wait, from hello, it’s different? I didn’t get a chance to do my—wait a second! What kind of a test is this?” So that was really interesting.
TS: Lama Tsomo, I thought one of the really interesting parts of your book, Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?, were these sections that you called “science tidbits.” You sprinkled throughout the book discoveries from contemporary science and how they relate to the journey of the Vajrayana of Tibetan Buddhism. I’m wondering if you could share a couple of those that are particularly meaningful to you, that really gave you new insight.
LT: Hmmm. Well, one that I really liked is a little bit difficult to describe quickly, but I really like it. In Tibetan Buddhism—or really any of Buddhism—there is this understanding that the source of everything is this level of unity and purity that’s known as “originally pure” and all-knowing being—because if it’s the place of unity, then what wouldn’t it know? Everything is joined together at the root there. It’s like an ocean. So, it's this ocean of awareness, and it’s pure compassion, because it’s one thing. So, if in my body, if I bang my hand on something, my whole self hurts. It’s like that. It’s utter, complete, pure, natural compassion.
So, this ocean, by its very nature, makes waves. Each and every wave in all the oceans in the world are unique; there aren’t two that are the same. And yet, they’re not separate. It’s one big ocean and it’s constantly making all these waves that are constantly changing. So that’s kind of the picture of reality, and you’re a wave and I’m a wave. That’s the metaphor—how it applies.
I became fascinated with the work of David Bohm, who was one of the great twentieth-century physicists. He was a protégé of Einstein’s and was quite famous and accomplished and so on—one of the early quantum physicists and so on. He described the world according to that level of zooming in, and I found it fascinating.
First of all, he said it’s holographic by nature, and so—how can I say this simply? I show diagrams in the book that he found helpful, where really the universe is nonlocal, I guess is the simplest way to say it. At the subatomic particle level, the edge of my skin is no different from just outside of the edge of my skin or the inside of my skin. We’re now way smaller than cellular structure. So, there’s just—now we’re already at this ocean level, right? It’s just kind of one ocean.
So then, we make sense out of this ocean of particles, waves—we can’t really say what they are at that level, and science has debated about that and done a lot of experiments about it for a long time, and they were busy about that when Bohm was alive and talking about this. Some of them called them “waveicles.”
So, on that level, it’s all kind of the same. So how do we make sense of it? How do we, in a sense, create our world that makes sense to us? We do it holographically, and our brains actually work holographically as well. Very interesting studies done on frogs—their brains—showing that they work holographically. Other animals as well, but particularly the complex human brain.
We really are weaving together our reality from this sea of quantum waveicles, if you will. That’s absolutely consonant with the understanding that the Buddha had. These practices help us get to that level and be able to see through the overlay that we put in front of our eyes, if you will—our windshield that is organizing reality into these forms that we think are actually solid when, obviously on the quantum level, they’re not at all solid. There’s as much space between an electron and a neutron as there is between a planet and the sun, proportionally—according to the proportion of their size.
So, that’s a lot of space. That’s still at the particle level, but on the subatomic particle level, it’s even more space. So really, how do we turn that into that chair that I sit on, floor that I walk on, my body—that kind of thing? We have a lot more responsibility for our reality than we can possibly understand. I don’t even understand it, and I’ve been meditating a lot for years. But at least I’ve had little glimpses, and that’s the precious gift of these practices and working at it a lot. We just have such strong habits of mind that it takes wearing away at it like water on a stone. But as the song goes, “Nice work if you can get it.” Because the more I do it, the happier I am. The journey itself is wonderful.
TS: So, the main section of your new book, Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?, is actually on methods so we can see for ourselves. We won’t have time to cover much here in our conversation, but I do want to at least talk about this first method that you introduce, which has to do with working with our motivation and our motivation for being a human being and also for spiritual practice. I wonder if you can talk some about that and what your motivation is, and what you see as “right” motivation?
LT: Uh huh. So, why am I sitting here doing this practice—that motivation?
TS: Yes, and how do we each work with our own motivation? How would you recommend that as a practice that we can engage with?
LT: Yes. This is a wonderful, simple sort of series of stupid questions that we can ask ourselves. Mostly, just with the question, “Why?”
Let’s say we want to begin something that we care about a lot. I was picking practice, at that point, that I think that you’re talking about. But it could be any piece of work that we care about. Why am I doing this? I’m going to just pick the example of practice so that I can get more specific with something.
So, I’ll go through this inquiry with a student in front of the class quite often so that they can go home and do this little inquiry themselves. I’ll ask a student, “Why are you doing this practice today?” Let’s say, “This morning when you did practice, why did you do it?” “Well, you know, I was tired and everything, but I have insisted I’m going to try and do this every day, so I did it.” I’m like, “OK. So, why did you make that decision to do that?” “Well, I feel that these methods really could help me so that I am a better mother to my kids and better with people at work and honestly, I’m not always so happy. There are all these things that I want that I can’t get, and all these things that I don’t want that I get anyway. Somehow or another, I don’t have a lot of control of that, try as I might. I still want to be happy. So, those are some of my reasons for sitting down and doing this.”
I'm like, “OK. Why do you want to be better for your kids and coworkers and so on?” You know, the first part that they answered with. And they said, “Well, because I love my kids and I want them to thrive as much as possible. I really want them to have a good experience in their childhood. So, I want to give that to them. It’s really important to me. I want to practice these tools so that I will do less of the knee-jerk reactions and more [of] the kinds of responses that I want to have with them, the loving responses from the way I actually feel about them, which is that I love them. And I actually want to pass good feeling back and forth with my coworkers at work.”
I said, “OK, why would you want to work better with your coworkers, for example? It’s totally understandable why you want to give a good childhood to your children, but actually, we could also, I could ask about that too.” So, let’s take—for the children: “Then they’ll grow up and do wonderful things for the world. Of course, they’ll be happy, and I love to think that they would grow up to live fulfilled lives doing wonderful things. As far as work, I want to feel fulfilled in my life and fulfillment for me means helping the world somehow.”
So, now they’ve come down to two altruistic motivations that are behind what they’re doing. Usually, people by that time are feeling pretty strongly, actually, as we go through that little inquiry. So, what started out as, “Well, I tell myself I do it, so here I am,” we got from that to “I want a meaningful life for my kids and for myself and benefits to the world.” Now that makes sense, if we circle back to this ocean and waves idea because if each of us is a unique wave on the ocean, then each of us has unique gifts to give to the world. We care about the world because we’re actually connected, just as all the waves aren’t really separate, they’re part of the ocean.
So, if that’s the true state of things, then our definition of meaningful, fulfilling life is going to be as much as possible, as effectively as possible, helping others with our lives—making our lives count for something for the benefit of others.
TS: So, it sounds like part of what you’re suggesting to people is that if they really get clear on their true heart’s motivation, that that in and of itself will be tremendously beneficial—just that clarity all the time, returning to that clarity.
LT: It will, because then if you’re coming from your real, true, core motivation, it’s almost like now you’re going to hit the target because now you’ve remembered what your real target is. We just forget—we get distracted and we forget. So, the more we come back to that, the more our practice, our outer life, our inner life can all really hit the target. That’s going to feel a lot more satisfying than sort of stumbling around forgetting the target, which is easy to do. That’s why we have to keep doing this.
This brings me back to Bohm and one more thing that he said. I will just have to paraphrase it, but what I read was so interesting to me. He said the extent to which we’re at odds with how reality actually is constructed is the extent to which we’re going to suffer, and the extent to which we are in line with it—our perception of how things are aligned with how things actually are—is the extent to which we’re going to be happy, satisfied, and so on. In a sense, that little exercise I was just talking about, this little inquiry, is helping us to do that, because then we’re getting back to, “I am this unique wave and I am also this ocean.” Now things are in alignment, so I’m going to live much more in alignment, and that’s going to feel better.
These methods that I teach in the book and the other ones that I’ve studied over the years all help us to be in that kind of alignment.
TS: I just have two final questions for you, Lama Tsomo. The first one is that throughout the book, I felt the strong quality of your devotion—of your devotion to your teacher and to the practices that you’ve learned, and that you’re now sharing with others. I just wanted you to talk about that for a moment, because I think that kind of devotion is actually not that common or people maybe don’t feel comfortable coming forward with their devoted heart.
LT: Yes. That’s an interesting word for me, because I actually had a lot of negative associations with it. I just thought I’m not this true believer type. I tend to be—I thought of myself as kind of the skeptic and was raised with a lot of science and enjoyed science, and I really have almost an allergy to blind faith. [Laughs.] I really don’t have much use for it. I’m somebody who asks a lot of questions, and I’ve always asked Rinpoche a lot of questions. I really need to understand something before I’m going to sign up for it. But when I’ve experienced something for myself, then it’s—I hesitate to even use the word “faith.” It’s simply knowing, and you can’t un-know something.
So, this one lama was in prison, and the Chinese were doing one of their interrogations, and they were saying—they were trying to get him to disavow his belief and the understandings that he’d come to through his own experience. And he said, “If you’re going to hit me if I say that I believe this, I’ll tell you I don’t believe it. But if you tell me to say I don’t have a mother, when I’ve experienced my mother and I know I have a mother, I’ll tell you I don’t have a mother, but I still know I do. That’s not going to change.” And the way I think of it is, you can’t un-know something.
So for me, I’ve thoroughly investigated these intellectually, experientially, and lived with them a long time, to the point where it’s something I just know from my own personal experience. So, I can’t ask somebody else to believe that out of blind faith, because I wouldn’t. But for me, it’s absolutely something I know. So, everything that I say in the book is based on things that I myself have experienced to the extent that I just know it.
And of course, I’m extremely grateful to Rinpoche for having brought me the intellectual understandings as well as the practices by which I myself could sit on a front-row seat—be my own scientist, if you will—and experience these things. So, the investigative lens, instead of being outward as in Western science, was turned inward. But at first, you have to stabilize that lens, you have to stabilize the mind; those are the first practices you learn. Then you’re able to trust the perceptions more—especially when they happen again and again and again over time.
TS: I just have one final question for you, which is: this program is called Insights at the Edge. I’m always curious to know what somebody’s “edge” is, and what I mean by that is kind of your own personal growth edge, if you will, at this point in your life.
LT: Ah. OK. That’s easy. [Laughs.] You see, I wrote this book, and now I’m in the midst of a book tour, and that’s a real edge for me, I’ve got to tell you. I’ve had this rich inner life and I’ve been comfortable as a teacher, but to really step out of that and give a lot of public events and talking to media and so on, and being more visible—I’m used to just sitting on my mountain in the middle of no place, Montana, and nobody knows who I am or anything, and I’m quite comfortable with that. I’ve really stepped out of my comfort zone and before I went on the first leg of the tour to New York, I was sharing with you before—I thought, “Oh gosh, I haven’t done a book tour. Oh my goodness!” I was nervous about it and everything.
But then I got in front of people, and here are just a bunch of people, and I’m a person, and we all want to be happy and none of us wants to suffer. I found these ways that really helped me to move things on the spectrum much more towards happiness and satisfaction, and living skillfully, and I’m excited to share these things with them and give them a taste of it, and a few moments of peace, joy, and living in their hearts just in that very moment as we’re sitting together. I feel blessed and honored that I get to be able to sit with people and do that. So, it was actually quite lovely.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Lama Tsomo. She’s the author of a new book, Why Is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling?: A Westerner’s Introduction and Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Practice. Well, thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone and forward to bring these teachings and the book forward. I think it’s a great service. Thank you so much.
LT: Thank you for having me.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.