BG 105: The Forest Dwelling Yogi

Episode Description:

“Enlightenment is found in the Body and nowhere else.” – famous Dzogchen saying

We’re joined in this interview by Reginald Ray–author of numerous books on Tibetan Buddhism and teacher in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In this episode we discuss the forest dwelling meditator, a category of practitioner outside of the normal lay / monastic dichotomy. In particular we look at the role that retreat–both group and solitary–plays for the type of practitioner that does intensive retreat but is not a full-time practitioner. We also discuss Reggie’s teaching emphasis on the shamanic aspect of Vajrayana Buddhism, particulary the role that the body plays in awakening.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Tibetan Buddhist Lineage in the West.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist geeks. This is Vince Horn. I’m in the studio live today, with my friend and compadre in the dharma, Ryan Oelke.

Ryan: Hello Buddhist geeks.

Vince: Glad to have you back.

Ryan: So today I am extremely excited and delightful to have Reggie Ray here. We’ve tried several times to get him on the show, and finally succeeded. There is a lot we could say about Reggie so I just want to share a few things. He has been a long time practitioner, student of Trungpa Rinpoche. He founded the Dharma Ocean Organization, a place for the studying the teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche. And Reggie has also been a teacher at Naropa University, for how many years, Reggie?

Reginald: Thirty-four.

Ryan: Thirty-four, from the very beginning, right?

Reginald: From the very beginning, yeah, 1974.

Ryan: And a teacher in the Masters Indo-Tibetan Buddhism program, on the history religion side.

Reginald: I’m in all the programs that we’ve offered, over all those years.

Ryan: Yeah. And you’ve been participation on both of those sides, because it used to be different for the two programs there—like the courses and the teachers, but you’ve been there since the beginning so…

Reginald: Yes I have.

Ryan: Yeah, great, and what are some of the courses that you’ve taught there? Just to give people a sample.

Reginald: Well, I’ve taught everything from Sanskrit to early Indian history, to Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve taught meditation courses, and you name it. Probably over those years I’ve taught 40 or 50 courses.

Ryan: Yeah, nice, and everyone who’s been listening to us for a long time knows that I’ve been in the program and I absolutely love the Naropa courses. Has to be the best program, in my opinion, in the country, for studying Buddhism—both from an academic and from an actual practitioner’s standpoint.

And speaking of academics, you’ve written several books that have been popular both in the kind of average Joe and Jane realm, and also into the academic realm. We’ve mentioned them on an occasion here. So the two wonderful books that Vince and I have both read are Indestructible Truth and the Secret of the Vajra World, which I always recommend to anybody who is new to Tibetan Buddhism. Like I need to know more about it or I want to learn more, wonderful overview of Tibetan tradition. And then a slightly more geeky book, is where you cover the three-tiered model, that’s…

Vince: Buddhist Saints in India.

Reginald: Buddhist Saints in India, yeah.

Ryan: I’ve read portions of it for my classes, but the three-tiered model we’ve mentioned several times in our different interviews. And it’s a little bit denser read, but it’s good. The parts I’ve read of it for sure—and it’s won several awards, for the…

Reginald: Very, very dense. Yeah, it’s an academic monograph.

Ryan: Right, and it’s particularly innovative because you included a third type of practitioner, not just the lay and the monk, but the forest dwelling meditator.

Reginald: yeah, well, most of academic study is about texts and institutions and visible rituals and lay people and what I feel, as practicing Buddhist and a person who’s been involved with the practice lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, is that the real source of creativity in Buddhism has always come from the marginalized practitioners who live far away from the urban centers, and far away from the big establishments. And so I wrote a book about that.

Ryan: Nice, and I think that’s a good jumping point for our first question. Your students say that you’ve been on retreats, every year you go on retreats for like three months at least or a significant amount of time, and the reason why I’ve so much appreciated you bringing that model to the front of dharma in the west, is that I think that allows more options for the western practitioner, because at first if you just look and see you’re either a lay practitioner who doesn’t do very much or you give up everything and go to a monastery, it’s a little bit tough for us westerners, but this third, the forest dwelling yogi, offers more, and even a combination of all three of these. And so maybe you can talk a little bit about your emphasis on retreat and how that appears in a western context.

Reginald: Well, Trungpa Rinpoche, who as you mentioned was my principal teacher, always emphasized that for western people, not only is the life of sort of permanent retreat not possible, but it’s actually not advisable. That really the highest quotient of personal transformation comes from mixing life, a fully engaged life in the world, with solitary retreat. And solitary retreat can mean anything from one week a year, up to a month, up to longer it you can do it periodically.

But there’s something about going back and forth from retreat, where, really, in the beginning part of every retreat you have to actually let go of who you are. You walk into a retreat, with all kinds of ideas and experiences about who you are as a person, which we do as humans. But at the same time it ties you up. And when you go into a retreat, you have to let that go—in fact you do let it go, because after a few day you’re not getting the social reinforcement that we really need to maintain our sense of self, our ego.

You let it go and then you explore some very, very big space in the retreat experience. And then you come back into the world and in a way you have to start over, you have to come back in and see who you are, and see what your relationships are with other people, and how you’re going to relate to your work. And it really is a different world when you come out of retreat. Often what we think is that the world that we live in is a solid world and it’s a certain way, but the fact of the matter is the world that we live in is actually a world that we ourselves create out of our own expectations.

And retreat, when you go in and out, is so powerful because you realize that the world is no particular way and when you come out of retreat you begin to discover each time the world in a different, much bigger way. So, Trungpa Rinpoche really emphasized that, not only because it was the practical necessity for modern people, but that he felt it offered many, many more possibilities of insight and personal transformation than simply being a lay person or simply being in retreat all the time.

Ryan: So it’s about…its a piece about integration? That makes the difference here? So if you’re being a lay practitioner you’re not really diving in and getting out of that context of the expectations we are constantly surrounding ourselves with, and if you’re in retreat all the time, is there difficulty in actually integrating some of your realizations or insights?

Reginald: Well, if you’re in retreat all the time, after a while if becomes comfortable. People who do long retreats, say two or three year retreat, the first period of time is destabilizing and you really open up to a much bigger space in yourself, but after a while it becomes sort of a way of life. It becomes comfortable and when we are in retreat too long we are not encountering the rawness and ruggedness of life, and what happens in ordinary life is that the depths of our unconscious are stirred up by the experiences we have in families and relationships and the world. And then that becomes the integrating process.

You need the material of ordinary life when you go into retreat, and you need the depth of ordinary retreat in order to take advantage of what’s stirred up in the ordinary world.

Ryan: So you said that regular retreat, whether it’s one week, two weeks, couple months, three months, that’s good to do. But do you find that a certain amount of time seems to be optimal for westerners, like a certain period, life if you go for a month you kind of get into a certain space, and then leave before it gets too comfortable, or does it not really matter, it just depends on where you’re at in your practice?

Reginald: Well, I think that, with the people I work with, initially they will do group retreats, which I think are important. Initially you need to learn that you actually can sit for a day or for a week or for a month. And then the next step is for people to try and individual retreat of maybe a week or ten days. And they might do that for a year of two.

But after a while, if you can work your life situation out, doing a month or six weeks is an incredible experience because you really do leave the known world behind, and after three or four or five days in retreat, you begin to explore experiences and dimensions of your self that you don’t have access to in ordinary life.

Ryan: Now, do you emphasize solitary retreats or group retreats or are both equal in nature? Or they provide different kinds of experiences? I guess that’s the first question.

Reginald: Well we have a default in the west; we have a whole mental way of looking at reality that we’re not even conscious of. But we have a certain idea about what it means to be a human being, we have a certain very solid sense of personal ego as modern people, we have a very denatured experience of the world. So, when we simply do solitary retreat and we’re not receiving teaching about meditation and its transformations, we tend to default into the view that we have as western people.

So, what I advise, or what I find most effective with the people I work with, is that the group retreat situation offers a chance to take a look, receive teachings on a daily basis, which I always do when I do retreats with people. And to reconsider and reformulate how we view the world, and what we think. And then based on that we can go into solitary retreat with that reformulated view and be much more open to what’s occurring there and much less kind of freaked out when we run into new spaces.

So, for my students, I like them to go back and forth, to do a group retreat with me once a year, maybe do a solitary retreat once a year and then do their daily practice.

Vince: There’s an interesting, just while you’re describing that, an interesting correlate in the insight community where I’ve practiced, where often times they’ll have like seven or nine day retreats, or even longer, where there is a group situation, a lot of contact with the teacher and listening to dharma. And then they have, more recently, a development where they’ve had long term retreat facilities that don’t have, really any structure, you’re just kind of there more or less on your own, it’s not solitary but it’s semi-solitary. And it tends to be for people who have done quite a bit of group practice, so there seems to be a similar suggestion in the insight tradition, so there seems like there might be something connecting those in some way.

Reginald: I think so, this fall I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and teaching and one of the places I taught was Spirit Rock, and I spent some time with Jack Kornfield, and he was telling me that they’re doing a whole new layer of building out there and it’s going to be mostly solitary retreat, you know the kuti, the huts.

Vince: the huts

Reginald: the huts, yeah

Vince: oh I can’t wait to get to the huts [Laughs]

Reginald: which is very, very exciting. It’s very exciting.

Ryan: So, have you found that this emphasis on retreat, in the way that you’re speaking about, is that fairly common or not common in the western dharma circles?

Reginald: Well, I think you have to talk about the different traditions. The solitary retreat, of course, is discussed in Tibetan Buddhism, but my experience of most of the communities, is that it’s not really a part of most practitioners lives at this point. It’s talked about, but it’s not really practiced that much. And even in my own community, Trungpa Rinpoche’s lineage and organization, the people who actually to solitary retreats are quite a small minority.

So, I think the teachings are there in Tibetan Buddhism, but people aren’t doing it as much as they could and I feel it’s kind of a shame because solitary retreat…things…in a way, if somebody has never done a solitary retreat, of course there’s going to be fear, there’s going to be a lot of resistance, but once somebody actually does it and they see how profound the experience is, even in a short retreat, and how much they change in ways that they actually want to, and are inspired to, then I don’t have to talk anymore, and they just start putting it on the schedule.

So, the tricky part is getting western people to really accept the idea and do it. Now the interesting thing is the insight meditation community, which traditionally, really you had to go to Southeast Asia to do solitary retreats and you could within the forest tradition of Theravadin Buddhism. I feel, in a way, they’re doing a better job than we are in the Tibetan side of encouraging people and really establishing solitary retreat as part of what you guys do.

Vince: Yeah…

Reginald: And Zen Buddhism, I don’t thing there’s a lot of solitary retreat there, but they do so much sitting together that in a way it doesn’t really matter.

Vince: yeah, it’s probably the rohatsu week right now. In fact, they’re probably in session right now [Laughs].

Reginald: yeah, exactly.

Ryan: I’ve definitely noticed that talking with Vince for so long, that it just seems that they it easier, and it’s put together to be able to go on extended retreat, it’s easier for them to find, but in the Tibet tradition I find it a little bit more difficult in terms of the external structures. I mean, if you’re motivated enough you can always find the way to do it.

So, why do you think it’s not emphasized that much, or why it’s not happening, is it the ability to do that is not provided for people, like retreat centers or huts and things like that, or is it a motivational thing, kind of a western psyche deal that’s going were more westerners don’t go on retreats.

Reginald: Well, I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. One this is, with all due respect, most Tibetan teachers tend to view lay people as less capable and less committed than monastic people. And this is something Trungpa Rinpoche really talked about quite a bit. That when most Tibetan teachers teach westerners, they tend to view them as lay people and so there’s not as much emphasis on getting them into retreat, the way they would some of their more advanced students, or some of their monastic or yogi type students. And I think that reinforces the western tendency to be a little bit afraid of being alone, and to feel that…I mean, all of us are so busy.

So, I think both sides are not maybe doing as much as they could to encourage people. But the thing is, something happens in solitary retreat that doesn’t happen anywhere, and maybe even in the zen-do it doesn’t happen. Which is, you are completely on your own, and what happens is you experience a way of being human, where the natural world and the life around the cabin and the weather, and the cycles of the seasons, become much, much, much, more felt in your psyche and in your body. And this opens us up to a level of human experience that all of us long for, but rarely get to experience as modern people.

So, anybody wants to talk to me about solitary retreat, I can go on forever [Laughter].

Ryan: Oh yeah, definitely. You went into it a little bit, to kind of an area that I think we wanted to talk with you about and that’s using the body. Not using the body, but paying attention to it and using it as a vehicle for practice and with your integration of shamanic tradition, also ties into the surrounding areas. I wonder if you could just maybe kick-off and talk about your experience in using the body and the breath and the energies, and the energies surrounding you and your environment, and how that plays into your practice and teachings?

Reginald: Well, as a historian of Buddhism, its come to my attention that we have a very unique dynamic within Buddhist tradition and the dynamic is that Buddhism itself began, I think, as a shamanic tradition. Shamanic tradition means: journeying outside of the framework of conventional culture and exploring a world that is other.

The Buddha himself, I think, inherited a shamanic tradition, and he was…in his earliest teaching…he was not an urban person. And in spite of what we have been told, and this is in my book Buddhist Saints in India, really makes this argument. Although the texts themselves seem to portray the Buddha as hanging around cities and building big monasteries and cultivating wealthy people and living in collective environments, in fact the earliest texts that we have in the tradition show him as a very, very solitary figure. A person who was willing to let go of his entire cultural and personal framework, in order to find out what human experience is, at its absolute, most fundamental level.

And Buddhism very quickly became co-opted by institutionalism in India and elsewhere. And what we have today is we have, and this started actually quite early in India, even fifth or sixth century; we have the early Buddhist traditions that are rather largely institutional, even though they always have a little bit of the yogi thing. But Vajrayana Buddhism is different, and I view Vajrayana Buddhism as a survival of a much, much earlier, much more, almost generically human, shamanic way of being a human being.

And it has survived within institutionalized Buddhism and has been a little bit institutionalized itself, but there always has been a tremendous amount of tension, historically, between the Vayrayana shamanic practitioners and the more established people who are following other, other more institutionalized ways. There’s a book by Geoffrey Samuel, wonderful book called Civilized Shamans, which makes this argument for Tibet, and I really agree with the argument he makes in that book.

Ryan: My experience feels like what you’re saying is true. I haven’t, obviously, studied all the texts and academically looked at that, but I get this strange feeling like things sort of got homogenized, a little bit, in the Vayrayana institution—they want to keep a little bit of it over here, but sanitize it or something, clean it up.

Reginald: Exactly.

Ryan: So, what does it look like for you, though, in practice, and for your students, are you just bringing back elements that were lost, or are you re-emphasizing those sorts of practices, or are you bringing in new practices, or a combination of all those?

Reginald: Well, Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized that there are two ways to be a Vajrayana practitioner: one is, in a much more sanitized way, where your journey is really controlled by the rules and regulations of the tradition, and the other way to be a Vajrayana practitioner, is to begin to tap into a much more individual human experience, and to begin to awaken within one’s self on much more naked and direct way of being, with one’s emotions, with one’s body, and in one’s life. And the second way is the, what I think is the survival, and that’s what he really taught.

In the human person, as he taught, the shambhala teachings of Chogyam Trungpa really talk about, a kind of inherent spirituality that exists in every person who has every lived. And, there’s, according to those teachings, which in my view are really the essence of Vajrayana Buddhism, although he presents them as a…kind of in a non-Buddhist way. According to those teachings, each one of us has a very individual and unique journey that we have to make in this life. And we have a calling, we have a reason for being here, and the purpose of our life is to discover who we are, and why we have come here.
And the interesting thing about that is, these are not questions to be answered in an intellectual or conceptual way, but rather through meditation. Which for him was the beginning and the middle and the end of Buddhism. We discover in ourselves, a kind of infinite depth in our own awareness. We come into experiential contact with a kind of ocean of being that underlies everything that we do, as conditioned people, and when we touch that depth of ourselves, we begin to relate to our own person, in a much more direct way.

As long as we are living on the surface, and guiding our life by our own personal hopes and fears and expectations, and trying to adjust ourselves to the social realm, we don’t really touch our own freedom. But when we, through meditation, come into that vast, open, empty space, of our fundamental being, we do feel our freedom, and from the point of view of that freedom, then we can begin to experience the energy that we actually have and the person that we actually are, and the imperatives of our actual life.

And out of that comes a tremendous upwelling of inspiration, and creativity, and love for other people. And that really is the Vajrayana way to tap into our freedom, and then from that freedom, to be able to live completely and fully, in terms of the very unique person that we are.

Ryan: Thank you, yeah we just received your new CD set from Sounds True, Tammy gave it to us, and it looks wonderful. I haven’t got to sit down and listen to it because we just got it, and it’s a big one. It’s like twenty hours worth of audio?

Reginald: It’s a lot more than twenty, it’s basically…

Ryan: Twenty per volume, maybe…

Reginald: It’s twenty CDs, over two volumes, and each CD has a lecture, a description of the practice, and then a guided meditation. So, it’s huge. Tammy, I don’t know how she got me to do it, but she did [laughter]. She’s very persuasive, as you know. [Laughter]

Ryan: So, it’s called, Your Breathing Body, which I think is, I wanted to bring this up, since we were on the subject…

Reginald: Sure.

Ryan: And, from my quick glance over the titles and everything, it seems like it’s dealing with just what you’re talking about, particularly the body, the breathing, and subtle energy practices. So, I wonder if you could describe what that CD set is about, and from what I could tell, it seems very unique. I haven’t seen any other audio program out there about that, and there’s actually very few books, that really, probably hit as directly as I imagine you do in this big CD set.

Reginald: And you also know about my book Touching Enlightenment, have you seen that book?

Ryan: Yeah, I haven’t got a…

Reginald: Yeah, that with the CD set…

Ryan: It’s a good combination?

Reginald: Well, yeah, I mean, the book provides the view or the overview, and the logic, and the history and so on, and the psychology of working with the body. And then the CD set provides the actually practices.

Ryan: Great.

Reginald: But, one of the keynotes of this lineage of Chogyam Trungpa, and of the Vajrayana in general, is redeeming matter, redeeming the earth, redeeming the body. In our western world, we have, for various reasons we have fallen into a way of looking at our earthly human existence that’s very negative.

The whole idea that ultimate reality is up in the sky somewhere is actually a very strange one, within the context of human religiosity. And you can say, “Well, what does it mean to redeem matter, what does it mean to redeem the body?” We have these teachings of original sin that tell us that the body itself is the palace of evil, that the earth itself and down under us, is the realm of the devil, that sexuality and spirituality are antithetical, that feminine values and virtues, and effeminate ways of doing things are lower than masculine.

The Vajrayana comes in and basically dismantles that entire way of approaching things. And it basically says that ultimate reality is down, not up. That if we want to find the fullest expression of wisdom and realization, we have to go down into the earth and down into the body.

There’s a beautiful saying in zochen, which is the highest meditation tradition in Tibetan Buddhism that enlightenment is found in the body, and nowhere else. In the practices that I teach, which are derived largely from Tibetan Buddhism, but also I’ve incorporated a lot of things that I’ve learned from some of my shamanic friends and mentors.

Through journeying into the body; first of all, we enter into who we really are because the body contains our karma, the body contains our history, the body contains all of our experiences, whether happy or sad, and the body is the repository of our entire life. And the body itself, in terms of our whole life that we make journey, and we have to journey through everything that we are in order to attain realization, enlightenment. Or realization is not a matter of cutting our selves off or moving away from our life, but moving into it. And the body is that place where we can do that, and the only place we can do it.


Reginald Ray

Dr. Reggie Ray is an author, teacher, and the Spiritual Director for the Dharma Ocean Community in Crestone, Colorado. He has forty years of study and intensive meditation practice within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Website: Dharma Ocean