The ancient Vajrayana tradition lays before us a path to realize the radiant wisdom that illuminates not only ourselves, but shines through everything we see and touch. This brilliance is our natural human condition — our fundamental nature. This is what is meant in the Vajrayana by “realization;” the experience of over-brimming with freedom, joy, and selfless love.
This is our journey alone to make — we must be exceptionally wary of handing our responsibility and power over to anything external; or of being hijacked by those who say that we cannot trust ourselves and must rely on external reference points. Lest we fall prey to our own self-doubt, insecurity, and fear, we must be wary of substituting anything external for our inner reliance, whether it be friends, communities, the day’s “political correctness,” or anything else. Especially, we must not try to turn responsibility for ourselves over to our teachers. If we allow ourselves to surrender our own agency to anything outside, and seek to make it a reference point, we evade our final responsibility. And then it is no longer our journey, but somebody else’s.
While this is ultimately our journey, and we must take complete ownership of it, we need to be pointed in the right direction and to be offered resources to follow the path, including not only teachings and practices, but encouragement to seek out companions on the path, and a measure of — just enough but not too much — mentorship from our elders. This document describes how these resources are understood and function in the Dharma Ocean lineage.
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.
The Path and the Training
Trungpa Rinpoche’s Vajrayana lineage, carried on by Dharma Ocean, offers a course of training that takes us from a disembodied, disconnected state, through a series of meditative practices and levels of maturation, to a point of embodied, spiritual fulfillment. The Dharma Ocean training unfolds according to six progressive stages each of which is accomplished through a distinct body of practices. Each of these is referred to as a “yana” or “vehicle,” a Buddhist term meaning a developmental stage. Here is a brief summary of these six yanas.
1. The Ground Yana: Here, we are learning to connect with our actual, embodied self, our Soma. Making this connection is the essential beginning point of the meditative journey because, in meditation, we must begin with who we are. In the ground yana, we learn how to enter into our own bodily incarnation, coming into direct knowledge of our lived experience. We find that the body is enormously spacious; alive with energy and wisdom.
2. The Meditation Yana: Once we gain entry into the inner space of the Soma, we see the limitless possibilities of openness, awareness, and experience that reside there. Without meaning to, we tend to jump right back into our thinking mind, back into our disembodiment. In the Meditation Yana, through the practice of sitting meditation, we train our minds to be less reactive to thoughts. We cultivate and deepen the experience of pure awareness within our state of being. This is similar to “silent illumination” in Ch’an, Shikantaza ,“just sitting” in Zen, and “abiding in the natural state” in Mahamudra and Dzogchen, except that it is more somatic in nature.
3. The Yana of Somatic Descent: In the third yana we bring our meditative awareness fully into the density, energy, and eventfulness of our body. In this tantric approach to meditation, we begin to see that everything that bursts forth from the empty space of our basic Soma, “the natural state,” — the energy of radiant, expressive awareness. We return to “samsara” with new eyes, but beyond that, we begin to realize there never was a “samsara,” just the enlightened manifestations of our own awakened nature.
4. The Yana of Great Compassion (Mahayana): In the fourth yana we refine our embodiment and somatic awareness further by tapping into the subtle warmth, tenderness, and wisdom of the heart. Through embodied bodhicitta (or awakening heart) practices, we discover that the heart is the ultimate organ of wisdom and compassion within our Soma; it beholds all beings and life as they are, in and of themselves and from their own side. This is simply the heart’s natural way of regarding everything, once the egoic veils of conceptual thinking are relinquished. We realize that to behold things from the view of the heart’s territory is to love them selflessly and unconditionally.
The first four yanas, the Ground Yana, the Meditation Yana, the Yana of Somatic Descent, and the Compassion Yana, are offered to anyone who wishes to receive and train in the teachings and practice. The Vajrayana is different: in order to take up Vajrayana training in Dharma Ocean, practitioners need a strong grounding in each of the first four yanas. That grounding provides the prerequisite for being accepted as a Vajrayana student.
5.The Vajrayana: In our journey to the complete embodiment of spiritual realization, we will find impediments and blockages. The most difficult of these obstacles are what we call “unresolved traumas.” These are unconscious emotional assumptions and beliefs about the nature of ourselves, others, and the world. These unconscious attitudes and beliefs, responses to overwhelmingly painful experiences, were laid down beginning from our earliest days, skewing our perceptions of everything. We are talking not only about the major incapacitating traumas that may be active in us, but also about the hundreds and perhaps thousands of insults to our person that were so painful that we could not fully process the experiences when they occurred.
In the Vajrayana, we work directly with these obstructing patterns, bringing them to consciousness through the practice, and learning to fully inhabit the painful experiences, thus allowing them to resolve themselves. This Vajrayana trauma work releases huge amounts of energy; over time, we develop the capacity to open and make room for the vastness of life that is our human birthright.
6. The Yana of Life Itself: In the final yana, we engage in what might be called “the return.” This sixth yana is not a separate yana, because it is the fruition of all the previous yanas and the training carried out through them. Having developed an initial acceptance and openness toward all situations and emotions, and to all those we meet in life, we now take unconditional openness further. In this yana, we must let go of all our reference points — especially our understanding, practices, and experiences of the past five yanas — and enter the practice of surrendering into everyday life without reservation or hesitation. We use the challenges of being alive, moment by moment, as opportunities to surrender further and further into the “what is” of ordinary reality. Here, finally, we have reached the full measure of our embodiment; this is spiritual realization in the tantric journey of Somatic Meditation.
To read an expanded version of this article, which includes descriptions of the stages of the Dharma Ocean path and protocols, click here.