Ever since I read a book by the Dalai Lama I have been hooked on Tibetan Buddhism. I even spent a year as a Buddhist monk in 2003/2004. I spent six years studying full time whilst living in a retreat hut at a Tibetan Buddhist centre in Queensland Australia, where I learned a great deal about the subject and had some amazing realisations about my self and the world. I have since gone my own way trying to translate the deep wisdom I’ve found into understandable and modern ways.
Tibetan Buddhism is a unique depository of Eastern thought. The country is nestled between China and India, Kashmir and Nepal and has adopted elements of different traditions including Shaivism, Indian Tantra, Japanese Zen, of course, Indian Buddhism. It also includes elements of the shamanistic tradition of Bon, which was native to Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism in the 8th century. Tibetan Buddhism is an eclectic mix of the best of the Orient, which can make it difficult to penetrate, so different Tibetan masters over the years have summed it up into several main categories. It has even become a curriculum of gradual stages to enlightenment, expressing all the great traditions in a step by step path to complete and full enlightenment. This blog is in that vein – trying to sum up the many and various practices of Tibetan Buddhism into an easy to understand spiritual path.
The four main spiritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism are Renunciation, Bodhicitta, Emptiness, and Vajrayana.
Renunciation has the connotation of turning away from something. What is not as widely known is that it’s also a turning toward something. It means to turn away from worldly pursuits to achieve happiness and turn toward inner and spiritual means to achieve happiness and fulfilment. It is the beginning of the spiritual quest after realising the limitations of wealth, fame and material possessions to bring lasting happiness.
Often in the West, we think “If I’m just successful in my career and have abundant wealth, I will surely be really happy”. Of course, people who have achieved these measures of success have discovered the ancient truth for themselves; that these things are not inherently satisfying, and have no meaning other than what we attribute them. Sometimes it takes a ridiculously wealthy and successful person like Russell Brand to remind us of this truth:
Increasingly I’ve realised; everybody has beauty within themselves, and if you find this and accept this, then you will be happy regardless of external attributes or material things.
‘Money can’t buy happiness’ is a cliché, however, the Buddhists go further and meditate on the fact that everything changes, and therefore no material possession can bring lasting satisfaction.
It is written as a noble truth that all conditions of the world are unsatisfactory, constantly changing, and have no lasting substance. Through meditation and contemplating this noble truth, a person turns away from pursuing these things. Instead, they turn towards what mystics and masters have advised will bring lasting happiness and fulfilment – or enlightenment – and freedom from clinging onto worldly conditions, in order to satisfy our desires.
When you are convinced of these facts right down to your bones, you have entered a spiritual path and have realised renunciation.
Bodhicitta is a type of great love and compassion that informs and motivates our spiritual pursuits. Upon reflection of the insubstantial nature of the world and the vicious cycle of looking for satisfaction in objects – which are inherently unsatisfying – we realise the unnecessary suffering of ourselves and everyone else in the world who is still trapped by the delusions of desirous attachment to things. This gives rise to a type of natural compassion that is motivated to help others, which is cultivated by first helping ourselves to become free of our own attachments.
The wish to be free to be the most benefit to all other beings is based on a recognition of the equality of all people. The intimate connection we have with every living creature comes from countless lifetimes of interrelating, our shared suffering, and our shared pursuit of happiness. We all want to be happy and we all want to avoid suffering, but unfortunately, we are trapped in patterns that undermine our own, and others’ happiness.
Bodhicitta is the courageous attitude that we are all in this together, and if I am to end suffering, I aim to end all suffering. Bodhicitta is therefore as humble as it is grand. Humbly bowing in respect to all living creatures in deep appreciation of our shared suffering and shared pursuit of emancipation. I cannot achieve my own peace when my brothers and sisters of the world are still trapped in suffering. It would be like taking all the lifeboats on a sinking ship just for yourself.
Luckily this type of great love and compassion for all beings is also a great protector of our own minds. It’s impossible to feel love and hate for someone at the same time. When we can love even our enemies, our own minds and hearts are transformed with resilience and purpose, helping to make life meaningful. As the Dalai Lama has assured us:
I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquillity comes from the development of love and compassion.
As the Dalai Lama has jokingly said: “for something that is indescribable there sure are a lot of books written about it.” He is referring to Sunyata or what has been most commonly translated as emptiness. Realising the truth of emptiness gives rise to the deepest wisdom, and the power to purify ignorance and transcend suffering. Therefore it is probably the most widely practiced meditation and contemplation of Tibetan Buddhism.
In its simplest form, emptiness is the fact that everything changes and therefore has no lasting identity or substance. When we look at anything and label it, that thing is in no way fixed and what we are labelling is the present moment appearance of something that is in flux. Because labels don’t change but things do, we only get an approximation of the world, yet we are convinced that we are seeing the whole truth of things.
Another way of looking at emptiness is that the map (labels/thoughts) is not the territory. No matter how good the picture or representation of something is, it is always different from the lived experience of it. That is why with mindfulness, we are taught to try and be aware of the present moment in a non-judgemental way, and therefore taking in more of reality and less of our opinions about reality. Reality is only truly touched fully when we experience things directly without the mediation of language. Seng Tsan a great Zen master says:
If you want to experience the truth simply give up your opinions for or against anything and the truth with reveal itself.
All of human knowledge is stored in language and concepts, so what happens when you give up the obvious intelligence of concepts? A huge void opens up. This void transcends language and concepts and is the direct experience of countless mystics throughout the ages.
It turns out the void is not empty at all. Those who have directly experienced this transcendent reality report a fullness, a interconnectivity of all things, and most commonly of all, a deep sense of love and peace are found in this most mystical of experiences. Meditating on emptiness by seeing things without judgement or labels, and particularly seeing yourself without any judgement or labels, opens up a whole new mysterious world filled with its own deep wisdom, unconditional love, and radiant bliss.
Literally it means the diamond path, and it is usually practiced after the realisations of renunciation, bodhicitta, and emptiness. The void filled with love, wisdom, and bliss are understood to be the nature of all beings and all things and is sometimes called the ground or source of being. Vajrayana is a skillful means to directly relate with this underlying reality, and bring it into the world through visualisation, mantras and blissful energy.
The foundation of Vajrayana is faking it until you make it, or in other words, visualising yourself as an emanation or extension of the underlying fabric of reality which has been understood to be void, love and bliss. There are many different deities or enlightened figures in Tibetan Buddhism which a practitioner can visualise themselves as, but essentially it is about visualising and imagining yourself as a fully enlightened being made of love and light. As the modern saying goes ‘whatever you can conceive, you can achieve’ so there’s great intelligence in this ancient inner technology, which employs the imagination to conceive yourself as an enlightened being; radiating love, bliss and benefitting every single sentient being in the universe.
The second stage of Vajrayana, is using the body’s subtle energy system to help connect with bliss and access ever deeper states of consciousness. By working with energy channels in the body and Chakras, the meditator experiences the unity of all beings, and transforms mundane sexual desire into a powerful fuel, igniting a supercharged path to the enlightened state. This untapped blissful energy is within all beings, and Vajrayana brings it to the surface where it is literally working with the blissful rays of the underlying source of reality. As Lama Yeshe says:
We all have a tremendous energy within us more powerful than an atomic bomb which is a fantastic resource to achieve the highest goal of enlightenment.
Bringing Eastern Practices and Teachings to the Western World
I have practiced all four of these spiritual paths and can testify that they are extremely beneficial and meaningful. I teach these forms of meditation and encourage people to engage with them to the best of their ability. Each one contains its own wisdom and has its own positive effects on my life. After many years of practicing these spiritual paths, I stumbled upon the secret teachings of Tibetan Dzogchen in books hidden at the back of the library in the Tibetan Buddhist centre where I lived. Dzogchen, which is sometimes referred to as the highest path of Tibetan Buddhism, contains all the above gradual paths, but it also contains a radical meditation on the non-dual, or instantaneous path to enlightenment.
The radical instantaneous approach recognises that renunciation, love and compassion, the void filled with wisdom and bliss, is actually already existing in a complete and eternal way within all sentient beings. The teachings say that all that is required is to give up all pursuits and efforts to get anywhere else, and instead rest in your natural state of completion and fulfilment. Because our nature is already perfect – sometimes referred to as pure awareness, or simply ‘Being’ – we only have to stop all fabrication and manipulation, and come to rest in the great natural peace of who we truly are.
After years of effort, study, retreats, and thousands of hours of practice, I did finally rest and discovered the truth of these teachings. To this day I am not sure if I could realise it instantaneously because of all the previous work I had done, or if it was there all along waiting for me to see it, so today I teach both the gradual, and instantaneous approaches in order to meet people where they are at, and with what they need at the time.