Joining Heaven and Earth

By Reggie Ray

In order to understand the shape of the Dharma Ocean community, its configuration of teachers and mentors, and its work in the world, it is necessary to understand Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala teachings about Heaven and Earth, the process of joining them, and the Sakyong and Sakyong Wangmo principles. It is sometimes thought that these teachings apply in a practical way only to individuals at the top of the hierarchy, but this is not the case. In fact, Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized that each of us plays the role of Sakyong and Sakyong Wangmo in our individual lives, and that we all need to understand Heaven and Earth and how to join them in order to live our lives in the Shambhalian way. Because there seems to be much confusion today as to what Trungpa Rinpoche actually meant by these aspects of his Shambhala teachings, some explanation is in order.

Heaven is the realm of vision and view. Earth is the realm of phenomena and practicality. Heaven’s task is to overarch and protect Earth. Under the vastness of Heaven’s love, the task of Earth is to give birth, to nourish, heal, and grow all things, to nurture them and make them live.

Vision, as Trungpa Rinpoche presented it, is seeing what is with complete openness, clarity, and impartiality; it is thus utterly non-conceptual and non-judgmental. To see things as they truly are is the same as loving them, and so just as Heaven sees Earth’s plethora with perfect clarity, its love for Earth is infinite. In Vajrayana terms, this is known as seeing the sacredness of all things—the phenomena of Earth and all she gives birth to—in all their beauty, power, and life.

Interestingly, each of us seems called more toward either the function of Heaven or the function of Earth. There is a tendency for men to be more disposed toward the Heaven role and women more toward Earth, but not always. In any case, as we grow spiritually, each of us learns how to embody and speak for both Heaven and Earth.

The word Sakyong means “protector (kyong) of the Earth (sa).” This means protecting the isness, the true or essential being, the life force, the inner purpose or mission for being that marks each of Earth’s children, from sub-atomic particles, to people, mountains, and stars—“all the realms of being,” as we say. It is assuredly not the role of the “Earth protector” to dictate to Earth or to humans what they should be; the sakyong’s role is to see what is in all its purity and sacredness and protect that within the realm of Earth. This means protecting and making clear the inner integrity, life force, and sacredness of what is, so that it is not covered over, misrepresented, polluted, or destroyed on its journey. For example, the sacredness of each person—their individuality, creativity, and unique journey—is an end in itself; in the Shambhala world, people are not a means to achieve some other higher purpose, sacrificed for some more noble end. Heaven’s role, in short, is to protect the life that Earth bears, the integrity and inviolability of all that is.

When it does not unite with Earth, Heaven remains aloof, disconnected, and ineffectual. Earth, for her part, loses her sense of sacredness when she does not unite with Heaven, becoming purely mundane and susceptible to being taken over by conventional values.

When Heaven and Earth are joined, the vision of the sacredness of each person, of all phenomena, is made clear within the mundane, practical, earthly sphere: Heaven gives teachings, practices, and social forms to protect that sacredness among the people of the Earth. When Heaven and Earth are joined, then Earth is able to carry out her mission of manifesting the vision: she heals, nurtures, and loves, guided by the true compass of Heaven. Heaven and Earth must surrender to one another. Heaven must surrender to what Earth bears without judgment or partiality. Earth must surrender to the sacredness of what Heaven knows and reveals, the sacredness of what is, beyond concept and conventional values.

We are a Shambhalian community in holding Chogyam Trungpa’s lineage of the four yanas and seeking to practice, realize, and transmit to others his teachings of sacredness, the dignity of each human soul, and the mission of bringing the Shambhalian view and practices to the rest of the world. In any Shambhalian community, those at the center of the mandala—in the case of Dharma Ocean, Caroline and I—are charged with representing the Sakyong and Sakyong Wangmo principles, and joining Heaven and Earth.

At present, I am mainly responsible for representing Heaven, Caroline is mainly responsible for representing Earth. Although everyone in our community is involved in the process of giving birth to the Shambhala vision and its application, Caroline and I together bear ultimate responsibility for developing, presenting, and activating the teachings within Dharma Ocean and the world. Beyond this, we have the charge of training everyone in the vision and maintaining its integrity in ourselves, our leadership, our community, and all the ways the teachings are manifested in our world.

Within that collaboration, my particular area is the view and practice. As I come to deeper understandings through my own meditation, and through ongoing explorations and discussions with Caroline, my job is to develop appropriate language for the teachings and practices which help people gain direct experience of it in their lives and benefit from the transformations that follow. Teaching, writing, and recording programs that express the view and practice are all parts of my job as well.

Caroline’s particular role is expressing, manifesting, and activating the view or vision in the realm of activity, both within the Dharma Ocean community and the world beyond. For example, as chair of the Dharma Ocean board, she oversees our board of directors, our operations, and all of the people who contribute to our organization, so that everything we do reflects the values of our lineage—the precision, responsibility, compassion, and integrity of the sacred world. She has also taken the lead in developing the teachings on relationality and intimate partnership, and looks after the areas of family life and children’s Dharma education at programs.

As a healer herself, in her teaching Caroline is helping all of us to understand how healing and spirituality are not separate domains. It is the process of healing itself that makes the spiritual journey possible, providing the continual foundation for the path. As head Desung (protector of well-being or bliss), she helps the kasung perform their function of protecting the health and well-being of participants and staff at programs. In this area, she has also worked with the kitchen mandala so that it is sane, wholesome, uplifted, and supportive of the journey of everyone at programs, both participants and staff alike.

Caroline also attends to the sign-lineage expressions of the teachings, having been instrumental in funding, designing, and decorating our retreat center and other physical spaces. Her own practice as a photographer, as well as her exploration of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on Dharma art, inspire the increasing presence of visual art in our community spaces. In short, through her many ways of developing, activating, and manifesting the teachings, Caroline is responsible for overseeing the life of our community and beyond, birthing, nurturing, teaching, healing, and mentoring as needed, encouraging all of us to bring the teachings into our everyday existence and make them real in all the details of our lives.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s Teachings and Dharma Ocean

It is most important that anyone wishing to practice in this lineage understands how deeply grounded our work is in Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings and how we strive to maintain faithfulness to his particular Vajrayana lineage.

When I began instructing others in Rinpoche’s teachings five decades ago, I was a thoroughgoing literalist. I came close to an approach quite common in historical Buddhism, where a teacher takes a revered text, reads a line, and comments on it. I was also a purist in the sense that I devotedly tried to follow what Rinpoche had said, not only about what the teachings were, but what to emphasize and how to communicate them, as well as how to work with the various students and situations one met.

While part of me might wish to remain a literalist and a purist, continuing to follow Rinpoche’s teaching and other instructions to the letter, as a historian of religion, I know that such can never be the case. Rinpoche’s legacy had to evolve in response to a world that has turned upside down since his day. Otherwise, like so many other charismatic spiritual movements over history, it would end up being no more than an archive or a museum piece, gathering dust, out of sight of the suffering world.

Over time, with the freshness of the teachings as my guide, and learning daily from my students, I gradually made room for Rinpoche’s dharma to evolve in my teaching, always in form, never in content. I have sought to emphasize certain aspects of Rinpoche’s dharma and de-emphasize others. I want to stress this point: none of this has come out of my own imagination or my own opinion. All of it has emerged from what I have discovered in my own practice and life, and what I have observed and seen in the students I have worked with.

The Natural State

In 1970 and in the following years, the “natural state,” what Rinpoche called “the meditative state” and “the awakened state,” was, at least for me, at the center of everything he taught. It wasn’t just a matter of theory, but what I experienced whenever I was with him, alone or in groups. Over time I discovered how to find my way there on my own. Throughout my seventeen years studying with him, this was the central theme and the main point in my interactions with him, up to the time he died.

As Rinpoche’s own teachings unfolded over time, this emphasis became less explicit, more implicit. In his Vajrayana teachings, though, at least for me, “pointing out” this natural state was always the centerpiece of every program he taught.

As my teaching evolved, I felt that I needed to bring students not just to understand, but to directly experience the natural state as the ground and essential point of their own being, and of Rinpoche’s entire lineage and, beyond that, of Buddhism itself. I felt that otherwise everything remained too conceptual and too abstract. But how to do that?

The Somatic Approach of Dharma Ocean

I stumbled on a very powerful — in my opinion the most powerful — entry into the experience of unborn awareness, one’s awakened state. During a Naropa Buddhist Christian conference around 1980, Eido Roshi reported an incident in his own training as a young, aspiring Zen student. He said that as a Zen trainee, he was in a sesshin, sitting late one night on the porch of the Zendo. He was completely consumed by his superficial mind, his thinking ego mind. This had been a problem for some time, and he became increasingly frustrated and upset. There was something he just wasn’t getting. His teacher then gave him a simple practice that involved breathing into the lower belly, the region of the hara, in a particular way. And that, Roshi said, abruptly provided the gate that had been eluding him. Eureka!

Roshi showed me the practice. I began working with it myself and found the same thing happened to me when I became stuck. A door that had been closed suddenly and miraculously opened. At the same time, I was doing long Mahamudra retreats each summer, then moving to the Six Yogas of Naropa. I began to clearly see how the many somatic practices in these and other Vajrayana transmissions lead to the same exact place. It wasn’t the specifics of the practices themselves, but the mere fact of entering so abruptly into the body that seemed to be the catalytic agent. How could I have not seen this before?

I began looking for other somatic protocols, first in the other major Buddhist lineages, finding Dogen’s profound teaching and instruction on how to be in the body. Then I discovered some Theravadin forest teachings along the same line. I looked beyond Buddhism, first to indigenous spirituality, then to the evolving Western somatic psychologies and therapies, exploring a few in depth. Since then, over the past forty years, I have developed some two dozen somatic practices with a single intent: to provide direct and immediate entry points into the experience of the natural state.

I began using this approach in my meditation programs, even with relatively inexperienced people. To my amazement, I found students naturally dropping into their deeper, buddha mind. That experience, occurring over and over, provided an extraordinarily fertile ground for their inspiration to follow the path of meditation and their confidence in doing so. For many years now, I have said that the core of my own teaching is pointing out the natural state — pointing out, pointing out.

As our Western and world culture becomes increasingly disconnected and dissociated from direct human experience, as we all live more and more in a virtual, disembodied world, that disconnection is reflected in each new generation of aspiring practitioners. Within this context, this somatic approach to meditation, and the immediate gate it offers to the immaculate, awakening within, would seem even more important than when I began teaching it. While traditional Tibetan Buddhism reserved these teachings for a tiny elite, I feel that that kind of extreme restriction is not only unnecessary, it is actually counterproductive as it prevents modern people from direct, personal experience of the ultimate, inner awakening. And I have found that without that experience, it is very difficult for modern people to connect with and stay with the challenges of meditation and the journey it provides.

Over the past two decades, neuroscience, and especially neurological research into meditation, clarifies what I discovered in my teaching. We have two ways of knowing — first, and primary, is what we might call “right brain” knowledge — the direct, non-conceptual experience of our subcortical regions, everything “below” the thinking mind — the body’s innate knowing.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, it is said that this type of knowing is “naked” or “pure” because it is unfiltered and unprocessed by our egoic thinking mind. This is somatic knowing, what some people call “body knowledge” or “body wisdom.” Second is the abstract, conceptual knowledge of the left brain, consisting of all the labels, concepts, judgments, and narratives we overlay onto our naked, pure experience. The left brain cannot experience anything in and of itself; it can only label and categorize the actual experience of our Soma, or body. Thoughts, even thoughts of enlightenment, don’t liberate; only the direct, bodily experience of the teachings does.

The somatic protocols of our lineage enable even new students to drop immediately beneath the incessant thinking of the left brain into their Soma. When they do, they experience themselves in a completely unprecedented way, running into the natural state as their ground of being. Once this occurs, students suddenly experience the insight, power, and warmth they have been looking for in the inner depths of their own being. This experience is known in Tibetan Buddhism as “empowerment,” and that is surely exactly what it is.

Embodied Spirituality in Vajrayana History

Spiritual practice and everyday life are not separate. In contrast to conventional approaches, this spiritual journey does not involve distancing oneself from “samsara;” from all that is physical, bodily, worldly, “impure,” and problematic. Rather it is a process of an ever deeper and more complete entry into those domains of our existence. We discover that it is precisely within the interior “space” of those aspects of our fully embodied, ordinary, human lives that the most important discoveries occur, and our true spiritual journey can unfold. This is why the experience of the natural state is so crucial for practitioners, right from the beginning of their journey, for it provides the unbiased, unlimited awareness within which the true sacredness of all experience can be seen.

Though the path of Somatic Meditation is not “religious” in nature, it has deep and ancient roots in the Vajrayana Buddhism of India, Tibet, and elsewhere in Asia. The tantric approach of Somatic Meditation takes our Soma — our body — as the fundamental arena of practice. Rather than trying to develop meditation through our thinking mind in a “top-down” process, as is the case with most contemporary approaches, Somatic Meditation involves a bottom-up process, wherein we connect with the inherent, self-existing wakefulness that is already present within the body.

In Vajrayana, the human body is in fact pointed out and personally discovered to be nothing other than the Buddha’s own threefold body of enlightenment. These are the three dimensions of our fundamentally, already fully awakened incarnate being: immaculate awareness — our most fundamental nature; the energy of awareness; and self-less compassion, from which the spontaneous responsiveness naturally flows. All of these occur outside of ego’s framework.

The hallmark of the Vajrayana in our lineage is that we begin with the fruition of the journey; we begin by pointing out, in a fully experiential, way the reality of the enlightenment within us. Meditation is the space within which we receive this fruition, and the method by which we develop it in ourselves. Somatic Meditation develops a meditative consciousness that is accessed through the feelings, sensations, somatic intuition, and felt sense of the body itself. In Buddhist terms, the human body is always abiding in the meditative state, the domain of awakening; we are simply endeavoring to gain entry into that.

Unless we make room for a direct, unmediated experience of our body as it is, without manipulation or distortion, then deep, lasting, ultimate transformation cannot occur. This helps us understand the curious fact that many people, even after decades of practicing top-down methods, will give up meditation, finding that the ultimate transformation they were looking for has not happened.

For all the benefits of top-down meditation, there is always an element of a conscious agenda; a subtle, if unconscious, culling of what comes up, and a prioritizing of some experiences over others. Hence, the ego ultimately stays in control. This freezes our development, landing us in what John Welwood calls “spiritual bypassing.” We are unable to grow. We are bypassing our actual life and the opportunity for endless spiritual maturation that are inherent within us. When we let what we think should happen override our body’s imperative of what actually needs to happen, we are turning away from the opportunity to become fully and completely human in this life; we are turning away from the highest spiritual realization.