612 Eva Natanya – Buddhism, Christianity, and Spiritual Discernment – Buddha At The Gas Pump Interview
>>RICK: Welcome to “Buddha at the Gas Pump.” My name is Rick Archer. “Buddha at the Gas Pump” is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. We’ve done over 600 of them now. And if this is new to you, and you’d like to check out previous ones, please go to batgap.com and look under the Past Interviews menu, where you’ll see them all organized in different ways. This program is made possible through the support of appreciative listeners and viewers. So if you appreciate it and would like to help support it, there’s a PayPal button on every page of the website, and there’s also a Donations page that explains some alternatives to PayPal. So thanks. My guest today is Eva Natanya, Ph.D. I first learned about Eva through an inter-contemplative dialogue that she was having with Alan Wallace and Laurence Freeman, whom I interviewed back in the spring, and that’s why I was listening to it, preparing for Laurence, and I really liked what she had to say and invited her to become a guest. So here she is; welcome, Eva.
>>EVA: It’s such an honor to be here. Thank you, Rick.
>>RICK: Good to have you, and it’s been a very enjoyable week for me listening to quite a few hours of other talks you’ve given. And I also turned your — the introduction, epilogue of your Ph.D. thesis into spoken word and listened to it while I was walking in the woods, and that was interesting, even though I must admit some of it is over my head, but you’ll help to explain it as we go along here today. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. So, you started out as a — well, you didn’t start out, but at a certain point earlier in your life, you were a professional ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet of England, both of which are very impressive achievements. And I must, you must have done a heck of a lot of dancing when you were younger and to get that good to be with these — and so what was it that kind of lured you away from that into really a completely different life that you’re living now, which we’ll describe, or we’ll learn about as we talk?
>>EVA: Well, it’s a long story. And it actually goes concurrently with much of my ballet career, the growing longing and commitment to a life of meditation, contemplation, theological inquiry, philosophical inquiry, that couldn’t, really could no longer be something I did in my private time at the beginning and end of a day when most of the day was being given completely to my professional dance career. So just to affirm what you said, yes, I started training in formal classes by the time I was about six or seven years old. My mother had already introduced me to improvisational dance and quite a lot actually, before that time, so it was a good 10 years of dedicated training before I entered the New York City Ballet at the age of 16 and then danced there for eight years, full-time, never missing a season. And then the last year of my career, I went to the Royal Ballet in England as a First Artist. And at the time, I had thought maybe I would spend another 9, 10, 15 years dancing as long as I physically could in England at the Royal. But it was a very — turned out to be a very important year of discernment for me. I had already begun studying, well, meditation by my late teens, and I was meditating morning and night throughout the dance career. I really have to go back a bit. My interest in Christian mysticism was there from childhood. My mother, Veronica Mary Rolf is a well-known author and theologian now, and she’s written on Julian of Norwich and Biblical mysticism. And actually, we wrote a book together called Living Resurrected Lives in a Christian context. And so she had imbued in me from a very early age this, I want to say, mystical longing, the awareness that a life of prayer and contemplation was not just something for the rare and gifted mystics, but something that as Christians we’re all called to, and actually introduced me to the work of Teilhard de Chardin at a quite early age. So I think of that as the — Teilhard, The Divine Milieu, The Phenomenon of Man, and some of his other very famous works. It’s like I was steeped in that from the time I was 11, 12, 13 years old. And so it was in my late teens that I was starting to take college courses part-time at Fordham University, even while I was dancing full-time at the New York City Ballet and immediately went into classes in World Religions. I had an amazing course in “Quest for the Absolute,” I think it was called and was already — had a marvelous professor who was deeply Christian and had spent a lot of time practicing in the Zen tradition herself. And she drew her students — and I will never forget the kind of vistas that she opened up into the possibility of dialogue and comparison across the great mystical traditions of the world. So by the time I was in England when I was 24 — yeah, 23, 24 years old, that was already just part of the way I breathed, to have a mystical longing and a spiritual quest. And by that time, I had been studying Tibetan Buddhism already for a few years, mostly listening to classes when I was doing my makeup or sewing pointe shoes or walking back and forth to the theatre; I had very little time to read still. But then in London, I took classes at the Jamyang Centre with Geshe Tashi, who is now I think Abbot of Sera Jey Monastery. And it was a year of discernment because even during that year, I did some of my — I did a week-long solo retreat in Switzerland. I just went and wanted to meditate all week and come back to — right back to rehearsals for “Giselle.” So by the end of that year, I had done about a three-week solitary retreat during our time off, and that had created a certain pivotal momentum for me, that once I came back into the ballet studio that Fall, it was as if something had dropped out of it. The appreciation of artistic beauty, the longing to create something exquisite with the human form, that was always there, but something about the attachment of me needing to be in that world had just started to finally dissipate at a level that I think had been coming in fits and starts for a number of years. But I kept discerning, no, it’s not time; don’t leave too early. And I’m very grateful for that discernment because, by the time I left, I had no doubts anymore. It wasn’t that sense of oh, maybe I missed out on something; maybe I should have continued.
>>RICK: A few thoughts on that: One is there’s a couple of verses in the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna asks Krishna, well, what happens if a person is on the spiritual path, and they die? And Krishna says, well, they’ll go to sort of heavenly realms for a long time, and then they’ll come back and be born in a pure and illustrious family. Or he says, but if they’re really lucky, they’ll be born in an actual family of yogis. So it kind of sounds like you were born in a family of yogis, Christian-ly speaking.
>>EVA: This is true; this is true.
>>RICK: And that whole phenomenon — I run into it a lot — of people who just come into this life with a certain ingrained spiritual fire, you know, and it ignites at a — often at an early age, and sometimes it gets extinguished a bit during their teenage years, but then it reignites, and they really take off.
>>RICK: So that’s interesting. I’m wondering, and also, I’m thinking, you know, professional ballet, like professional athletics, takes a great deal of discipline, I’m sure. It’s almost like a spiritual practice, you know, the focus that a professional athlete has to have to be really good, or I’m sure a professional ballet dancer, must have actually been very good training for your current profession.
>>EVA: For sure, and I was actually self-aware of that. I won’t say exactly when I started to think of it actively as, “This is my monastery.” Like the discipline of going to the barre every morning and working through pain, working through exhaustion, working through a fear, adrenaline, anticipation of performance, and the very regularity of it in the sense of needing to discipline the body and the mind in preparation for whether it’s a rehearsal, whether it’s learning a new role, whether it’s being part of a choreographic project, whether it’s having an emergency rehearsal when someone has been injured, and then one needs to have a rehearsal. Even before a class, occasionally, we would just be walking through something to be sure somebody knew where they were and then go straight into the performance within a few hours. And so all those different layers of physical and mental demand, I realize, yes, it’s an extraordinary training. And once I started to see that it could be a spiritual training as well, the kind of intense self-awareness that I found myself cultivating — I won’t even say I decided to cultivate it — just started to come, that I was so intent, especially in moments of immediate preparation for performance, that adrenaline factor creates an — a vividness, an acuity of mind that actually meditation is working to develop in a much more sustainable way.
>>RICK: Yeah. Hmm.
>>EVA: So yeah, I could go on about that (overlapping).
>>RICK: Sure. What kind of meditation did you learn when you were — what was it, 16? Was it Zen?
>>EVA: Well, yeah, so, oh, I haven’t thought of the name — Daily We Touch Him, I think, was the name of the book by Father Basil Pennington, who was one of the founders of the Contemplative [sic] Prayer Movement. And so I was reading that pretty much simultaneously with Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, and then another big compilation of comparison between Zen and Christianity. So that is definitely where I started in that interface of Zen-Christian dialogue and certainly in the tradition of Thomas Merton. But already there — the question was arising for me, okay, this emptying the mind of thought in order to rest in pure prayer or prayer of the heart or a longing for union with God and knowing that this must be a “beyond all concepts.” And so I was introduced to that as I, I want to say, an aspiration quite early. But then as I started to read Zen material, on the one hand, it kept pulling me to a very similar state of mind, but then the more I read, the more I realized there’s a potential real difference in worldview here. And do I have a right, as it were, to be practicing Zen and occasionally going for a one-day sit when I could? That was very rare, but occasionally I did go to — for a one-day sit with teachers in New York City. Can I be doing this as a Christian? And so I’d say that in both cases, because I don’t think it’s too much to say that in the Contemplative [sic] Prayer Movement, in particular, as distinguished from the lineage that John Main taught, it’s mostly technique-free. There’s instruction there, but it’s very sparse in the sense of technique. And likewise, in primarily the Soto Zen teachers that I was reading, reading, and listening to, very sparse, even a counter emphasis about well, don’t even follow your breath very much, because that won’t take you to the depths. So I — in answer to your question, what was the technique, my memory is it was a constant searching for technique because I actually felt I was missing one.
>>RICK: So you would sit every day, twice a day, searching for a technique?
>>EVA: I don’t think I would have thought of it that way at the time, but in retrospect, I think that’s one way of saying it.
>>RICK: I think Basil Pennington was teaching “Centering Prayer,” wasn’t he, along with Father Keating, or?
>>EVA: Yes, I am sorry, I was saying “contemplative prayer,” because I was thinking of Contemplative Outreach, but Centering Prayer is the name of the system, yeah, and yet, a very system-less system, as —
>>RICK: Yeah, they were both inspired by TM, which they had learned earlier, and then decided at a certain point that they just wanted to find something similar in their own tradition. But when I interviewed Father Keating, we were kind of on the same page because I had a TM background, and sort of the subtler mechanics of meditation that he taught were very familiar to me.
>>EVA: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
>>RICK: Yeah. Okay, good. And then, you know, I guess it was you must have wrapped up the ballet career in order to then get deeply into your education. You got an MA in Christian Systemic — Systematic Theology at Graduate Theological Union and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia, and I read parts of your dissertation; it was 800-and-something pages — unbelievable project. But it sounds to me, and you can elaborate, that you went very deeply into both Christian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, to the point I believe, of actually learning Tibetan, did you not?
>>RICK: And being able to read and write in that language. So I think maybe a lot of our talk today will center around a deep comparison between those two traditions, as you offered in a talk which people can find online that you gave making that comparison, not — I’ll provide some links to some of those talks in the show notes. That was kind of a question-statement. We’ll find a (overlapping).
>>EVA: Yeah. I wasn’t sure where you want me to pick up, so.
>>RICK: Yeah. Anyway, I guess that was a fair synopsis of what you — what your training involved?
>>EVA: Oh, for sure. Yeah. When I finished dancing, I actually had to finish my undergraduate degree first, because I’d been doing part-time for almost eight years by then. But then I did a full semester, finished my degree at Fordham, and went straight on to the program in Systematic Theology at the Graduate Theological Union, based in the Dominican school. So I — many of my classes were right there with the Dominican friars in training for the priesthood, as well as classes with the Jesuits. The Graduate Theological Union is a marvelous consortium of different theological schools, all working in harmony, and the kind of opportunities for interfaith work, even among Christian denominations, is extremely strong there. And at the time, there weren’t many people doing dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism, but they certainly were open to it. And I, because I had that knowledge from other sources, I was able to have a lot of freedom with my master’s thesis.
>>RICK: Yeah. So let’s kind of get into — well, let’s — one more little bit in your bio before we shift gears.
>>RICK: So now you’re in Crestone, Colorado, and you’re in a beautiful place. I’m going to show the website on the screen here. It’s the Center for Contemplative Research. And I guess there’s also a Tibetan name associated with it. What is that, Miyo — ?
>>EVA: Miyo Samten Ling is the name of the actual hermitage, and that means “Hermitage of Unwavering Samadhi,” or “Unwavering Meditation.” The Miyo — Miyo means, so yowa is “to waver” and Miyo means “completely still.”
>>RICK: Okay. Have you experienced much of that?
>>EVA: At times.
>>RICK: Good. Yeah. And so you’re — you live there, and you spend a lot of your time in solitary retreat, right?
>>RICK: And what’s that routine like? What –let’s — give us a typical day in —
>>EVA: Yeah, yeah, I’m trying to think how to — to broach it in the right way. So we are in a community actually, of retreatants now, those who have committed themselves to long-term retreat, which is very different from the kind of retreat I was in from 2017 to 2020 when I was all on my own, and I was in a couple different places on my own in solitary retreat. But here we have the unique opportunity to be a community of yogis, really, a family of yogis of a new kind. And each person has been carefully selected. There’s an application process; I’m actually responsible for a lot of the review of applications now. And so that’s why I wanted to say that before jumping into a typical day is the kind of preparation it takes before one’s even ready for that typical day, which is, as we know, there are many circumstances in which one can go for a three-day retreat or even a weeklong retreat, really just to explore techniques one might have learned in classes and guided retreats, in teachings, and so on. But in order to enter into a retreat of greater length, it takes that process of working up to it. Because so often, people dream of, oh, if I could be in retreat for three months, if I could be in retreat for a year, reality would change. And yet that year, or those three months, is made up of hour intervals and ten-minute intervals and millisecond intervals of being at peace with one’s own mind or finding peace with one’s own mind. And solitude becomes a kind of a powerful incubator. Because whereas in one — in our ordinary existence, especially in 21st-century society where there’s so much input from the outside, it helps, what Buddhism for sure says is the root of our problem anyway, which is that we see things appearing, and we think they’re really out there. And so the more things that are interacting with us and giving us input, and our output gets associated with it — watching television, watching a computer screen, having conversations, digital conversations, real-life conversations, it means that the kind of disturbances and mental afflictions that come up from within get mixed up in that busyness. So that one’s seeing, let’s say, then negative or harmful actions of other people, and then one’s seeing one’s own mental afflictions, but one can’t tell the difference. And so they’re getting meshed into a kind of a matrix that’s all somebody else’s problem. And, of course, many people, most people, I think, who are on a spiritual path, consider themselves to be on a spiritual path, they’ve already realized I need to look within; that’s often the first step. Or I need to look without at the ultimate level, the divine level, rather than the parallel level of our world, of our world of the senses. But what can often be most difficult about going into an extended period of solitude — I’d say more than three weeks is a kind of a threshold — one can have an initial inspiration and intention that can carry very well through three weeks. By week four, if there isn’t a deeper sustaining power, one will just start missing the world and say, I want to go back — I want — and I have things waiting for me; there’s other stuff I have to do. So that week four can be a very important threshold, but then much less month four and month six, that silence and the focus on practice, and I will get to that in describing it, it means that it becomes more and more vivid, that all the cycles of problematic arisings, or it being stimulated by the outside world, because one has deliberately cut off all the outer stimuli, as many as possible. And oftentimes, because retreat centers are deliberately in beautiful places, even when there’s no storms or hot weather or mosquitoes or hail, whatever it may be, there’s still that sense of oh, well, I wouldn’t blame the environment; that’s still cultivating; that’s still nurturing me. And so all the discontentment that we actually carry as human beings is vividly thrown up on the screen of the mind. And then the work is to clean it; the work is to release it; the work is to find a deeper purity and rest there and not get caught up in those spirals. Because if one’s in retreat, and one gets caught up in the spirals, there’s — one doesn’t have all the usual distractions to get one out of a spiral.
>>RICK: Back in the ‘70s, I did a number of long retreats, several of them six months at a time. And looking back at that now, I wish that they had been a little bit better structured with a little bit more supervision. Because, you know, I had a tendency to just get kind of really eccentric and kind of off-balance and obsessive about certain things, and waste a lot of time, really. And if there had been a little bit more feedback and monitoring of what each individual, and a lot of people, I think, were going through with that kind of stuff, if there had been a little bit more monitoring of what we were going through, it could have been time better spent. So has that been your experience either personally or with others at — in retreat, that you can get a little nutty, what with doing a lot of long, long, practice for weeks and months on end, and there needs to be some kind of supervision to keep you on track?
>>EVA: Well, and that’s one of our central goals having a community of like-minded practitioners, and there is leadership, and there is guidance. So as I started to say, because of the application process –so this Center was founded by B. Alan Wallace — you mentioned his name earlier, that he was part of this, this inter-contemplative dialogue with Father Laurence and me — but, so B. Alan Wallace, Dr. Wallace has had this vision for, oh, at least 17 years or longer of founding a center or multiple centers around the world where committed practitioners could have the conducive circumstances to not only know their practices well, learn their practices well, but stay in retreat in a sustained way. And with proper guidance and proper support from a fellow community of fellow practitioners, that they don’t have to leave, that they don’t have to keep being distracted back to the world and then not necessarily start from scratch but start over again each time they find a new place to be in retreat, which I think has been the experience of many who are just trying to find a good cabin somewhere to do solitary retreat. And so the system of practices that we’ve all learned and that everyone needs to have been practicing for quite some time before they’re even ready to go into long-term retreat, are based in the Buddhist practices known as śamatha and vipaśyanā. So śamatha being — it’s sometimes translated as “quiescence” or “stillness,” sometimes “calm abiding,” which is a very literal translation of the Tibetan words, shi né, and that shi is “peace” and né is resting, so literally, śamatha — shiné in Tibetan; śamatha is Sanskrit — is “resting in a peaceful state of mind.” But that can be misleading because one can have flashes of a peaceful state of mind at lots of different stages of the path, whereas śamatha is referring to an extremely stable state of meditation that can be sustained, typically, according to the scriptural accounts and the lineage of great masters, typically, for four hours at a time, unwavering samādhi — back to this word “unwavering,” — unwavering, samādhi for four hours at a time unbroken, don’t get tired, don’t feel agitated, don’t have any need to leave that state of samādhi — could, probably by the time one can do four hours, five wouldn’t be hard. But there’s a real threshold there once one can get into a four-hour state of samādhi, which I’ve never been able to do. I’m (overlapping).
>>RICK: No, me neither.
>>EVA: But śamatha —
>>RICK: In fact, how many have, in your experience?
>>EVA: Uh —
>>RICK: I mean, are we talking about super, you know, advanced Tibetan yogis that you may have met or that you haven’t even met, but that are legendary, or? Yeah.
>>EVA: That I know of, yes. So yes, that I know of for sure. I do know of non-Tibetans, Westerners who have been able to meditate on — in an unbroken stream for — and I’ve heard numbers like eight hours, eleven hours, then a short break, and three more hours. So it’s not that unusual now, but it’s still probably one in a million.
>>RICK: But whether they’re in a state of perfect silence during all those hours is another matter.
>>EVA: It’s — it’s the — so this is what I was going to get to, if they can stay in samādhi, their body might not move —
>>EVA: — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s śamatha, because –
>>RICK: Right. They could be thinking about their high school sweetheart, or whatever, you know?
>>EVA: — it’s the subtlety of what the mind is going through at the time that — now in one sense, the amount of time that someone can stay in unbroken meditation — I won’t say samādhi or śamatha — but just unbroken meditation, it’s a good sign because it means that there’s nothing so agitated, agitating that, first of all, there’s an impulse to get up, but also because of the prāṇic system, the system of inner energies. They’re balanced enough to let your body remain in a single posture without needing to move. And I know very well, and I’m sure you’re familiar with, deeply familiar with this, because of the interconnectedness of the mind system and the prāṇic system. If the mind is —
>>RICK: Maybe just define “prāṇic” for those who aren’t familiar with that term.
>>EVA: Yeah, sure. So prāṇa is a Sanskrit word — should get the retroflex “ṇ” there, prāṇa, which can mean “breath;” it can mean “breath of life,” but it most of the time refers to a very subtle energy that’s coursing through our “subtle body” — that’s really, that’s the best term to use, our “subtle body” — at all times. And there are other terms for that in Sanskrit that get into distinctions, whether Vāyu or Vāta, of the different kind of inner winds or inner energies. Some of them are quite coarse, as in the energy it takes to be speaking right now, the energy it takes for digestion and excretion. Some of them are more subtle. So when I’m speaking about prāṇa, right now, I’m actually speaking about something that anyone who has meditated probably for more than 45 minutes has an experience of, even people who’ve meditated for 10 minutes could start to get an experience of, which is a kind of a pulsation that can happen throughout the body that’s not just the blood, that’s not just the blood moving through the veins. It’s a — sometimes can manifest in tingling sensations. The more one meditates, the more one practices especially “Mindfulness of Breathing,” one can follow the way that that energy is coursing through the body in different places, and it starts to balance itself. And so the point that I was making is that because of that interconnection between mind and prāṇa — or in Tibetan, lung, and it’s one of the many meanings of lung, but as in “subtle energy” — if the mind is really disturbed, it will disturb the prāṇa system to such a degree that one won’t be able to sit anymore.
>>RICK: And vice versa, wouldn’t you say?
>>EVA: Yes. So the more — the calmer the mind becomes, then the calmer the prāṇic system becomes —
>>RICK: Mm-hmm. For sure.
>>EVA: — both ways.
>>RICK: Yeah. And when you say prāṇic system, it kind of reminds me of the, you know, the kundalini and rising up through the shushumna and then there’s the Ida and the Pingala and the nāḍīs. It sounds a whole lot like that, that same description.
>>EVA: So, yeah, and I know you had mentioned this question to me earlier. Those are all Sanskrit words, and they have their proper place in Buddhism, as well as in Hindu Tantra. So the Shaiva Tantra systems, the Buddhist Vajrāyana systems, they do actually use many of the same words. So Shushumna being the central channel, Ida and Pingala being the right and left side channels; Ida’s the left; I think Pingala is the right. I haven’t used it in a while; I haven’t used those in a while. Kyangma and roma are the Tibetan. And then kundalini. Okay, that’s an intensive word that I think I should explain now to the best of my ability. So when I’m speaking about prāṇa, in general, and the kind of prāṇa, one can experience after meditating for half-an-hour, a day, for a couple of weeks, and then the mind just quiets down enough to start to notice, oh, there’s another layer of sensation here, that is not prāṇa that’s either in one of the two side channels or in the central channels That’s prāṇa that’s everywhere and intimately associated with the breath, the coarse respiration, of course, according to both Hindu and Buddhist tantric systems. The side channels are, I want to say, like — I’m getting road analogies, but it’s not quite the — it’s not like onramps. Anyway, I would go too far in a highway analogy. But the prāṇas move up and down through these side channels, which are actually close to the spine, and they — sometimes they’re described as meeting here; sometimes they’re described as ending here. There are many different visualizations actually, which affect the way that one is — even experiences (overlapping).
>>RICK: For audio listeners, you pointed to the third-eye area and the crown chakra areas. Go ahead.
>>EVA: Thank you. Thank you for that. So what I’m actually starting to say is that these — it’s not like they’re physical in the way that the aorta vein is physical.
>>RICK: Sure — subtle.
>>EVA: They’re subtle, and no physical instruments known to contemporary science would be able to detect them.
>>EVA: But they are physical in the sense that they have a location in space.
>>EVA: And the energies that move through them have physical properties that’s different from sheer consciousness, which is not physical.
>>EVA: But they are not inherently existent in the sense that they’re malleable. And by training the mind and the pathways of the energies, one is actually training the way that those channels will function within one’s physical system. And so sometimes people are confused by the fact that there are so many different systems of visualizing the channels. It’s like, well, which one do I have? Potentially, we have all of them. Potentially, we have all of them. Now, sometimes the teacher toward whom we’re drawn or a particular system — let’s say it’s the Kālacakra system versus the Guhyasamāja system within Tibetan Buddhism, they will have drastically different presentations of the inner body. And according to even which one one’s practicing at a certain time, one will have to visualize one’s own inner body in a different way. And that shows the very malleability of how that body arises in relationship to the way it’s being conceived. It’s very — it’s tricky. It’s tricky.
>>RICK: Yeah. All right, so you’ve alluded to being able to reach a state of samādhi or perfect quiescence for you know, ideally is at least four hours. And we’ve talked about prāṇa as being related to that, and we’ve talked about the kind of stirring up of vāsanās or samskaras, the purification process that can take place when one goes into a long retreat. And there’s a question which came in here from a listener, which I think I can use to ask you the question I’m about to ask. This is from Silvia in Freiburg, Germany. She says, “I am an awakening neuroscientist who has only recently begun to explore meditation as a tool to study consciousness from a first-person perspective. I want to better understand consciousness and think it can only benefit everyone to learn more and awaken. What else do I need to work on?” And let me just add to that and ask you: So far, we’ve talked about what we might call the ideal end result of meditation, which is a balancing of the prāṇas and a state of samādhi for an extended period of time, but how do you bring that about? What kind of actual practice or technique are you talking about that — and you might even comment on beginning practices which somebody like Silvia might be able to practice and more advanced ones, which you might need to be — need to practice in order to go into samādhi for four hours.
>>EVA: Mm-hmm. So in order to, to come back to that answer and bring closure to your previous question, Kundalini refers to what’s sometimes translated as “inner fire.” And that’s an example of an extremely advanced practice, which I think some people have unfortunately had the experience of being introduced to much too soon, and then using those kinds of energies, getting some very powerful experience that may seem to bring insight or a totally new view of reality for a time, but is not necessarily lasting in its results. And within the Buddhist Vajrayāna system, which I’m most familiar with, and what you would have seen in — at the end of my dissertation also, this reference to, it’s really only most appropriate to do those practices when one already is able to sustain meditation for these extended periods. So this is a way for me now of backtracking, which is to say, there’s been a lot of interest recently in all these cool inner-body practices and work with the winds, work with the channels, and yet, when one doesn’t have a state of mind that is truly stable and truly purified, those practices end up being like working with nitroglycerin. It’s —
>>RICK: Yeah, they can be dangerous.
>>EVA: They can be really dangerous.
>>RICK: — yeah. I mean, I’ve known people who’ve done like, a whole lot of intense pranayama or too much of this practice or that practice, and they’ve ended up in mental hospitals, you know?
>>EVA: Yeah. And I can give a reason, which may help a lot of people — I hope this will be helpful for a lot of people. Because the prāṇas and the mind are so intimately connected, if one is — has not yet purified the mind of coarse and subtle levels of mental affliction, as in anger, hostility, jealousy, intense attachment, greed, and so on — that’s — those are examples of mental afflictions; there are 84,000 of them, according to the Buddha — if one has not done a long process of purification of mental afflictions — and that’s what I’ll get to in terms of describing meditation practices —
>>EVA: — but if one has not yet done that, and one is trying to use visualization techniques, even physical asanas, pranayama, and so on, to force energies into the central channel too quickly, then, as one of my teachers long ago said, it’s like messing around in the subtle body with a blunt tool.
>>RICK: Yeah, good point.
>>EVA: Like, you’re trying to do brain surgery with a knife and fork. And so the thing is, it’s hit or miss. And I — there are so many chambers to the heart chakra, not as in the physical heart, but the heart chakra, people can think, oh, wow, I’m bringing all this energy to my heart. But if you get stuck in a chamber, thinking physical space, it’s a few millimeters off, and you put an enormous amount of energy into that chamber, but it’s not dissolving gently, sweetly, purely into this actual chamber where it’s supposed to be, it’s like setting a bomb off inside one’s heart, and that can actually cause physical damage. So this is in Tibetan called heart “wind” or heart lung. It’s actually tsa lung is “life wind,” but there are actual disorders of the wind when it gets in the wrong part of the heart, and that can cause physical pain, and as you say also deep mental distress. So that’s to — to set that aside with deep reverence, with deep love for these practices, and to say, not only don’t try this at home without a teacher, but don’t try this until you’ve done all the other practices that within those ancient traditions, were actually prerequisites to them. And sometimes those can take years or decades of fully dedicated practice.
So then coming back to where do we start? And this will answer your question, too, of a typical day of a meditator here, which is settling body, speech, and mind in their natural states, which is a practice specifically described in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism — in English, the Great Perfection tradition. And, in one sense, it seems so obvious, like, well, of course, one has to learn how to be in a proper meditation posture with the back straight and the hands, whether on the lap or on the knees, I can’t show you now even on Skype, but the legs crossed, the head straight, the back of the spine slightly longer than the front and letting the breath flow naturally. So that’s basic meditation instruction which I think is consistent across many traditions. But the settling of body, speech, and mind in their natural states has an element of release, to let first of all the body find what is its own perfectly balanced state, and that’s not the same for everybody. It’s not some kind of forced, militaristic, oh, I have to be really straight and tall. Sometimes, it might be in the śavāsana position, lying like a corpse. It may be in a chair; it may be seated in a more comfortable cross-legged posture, not the full vajra asana. But then, in terms of the breath, it’s a releasing the breath to find its natural rhythm, not exerting any control whatsoever on the rhythm of the breath, which is actually the opposite of pranayama, where one is trying to calibrate the breath towards preconceived rhythms, which has its own purpose. But in the Dzogchen tradition in particular, and Lama Alan Wallace emphasizes this a great deal, it’s a releasing the breath to find its own natural rhythm. Sometimes for someone who’s starting out in meditation to release the breath all the way may be the first time they’ve done that in decades, because there’s — there are built-up fears, built-up tensions, built-up stresses, built-up “I have to do something next” that means we don’t fully exhale, maybe except in sleep. And then likewise, the inhale, that the inhale not be in any way pulling, grasping trying to get the breath but receiving the breath. It already can become a mystical experience of receiving the breath as a gift, as a divine gift from the outer world. Wow. And just letting the breath fill one’s whole body can be a sacred experience. And then settling the mind in its natural state can begin as, within the first few minutes of a meditation, simply letting one’s eyes open, actually, not keeping the eyes closed, as though “my mind is in here somewhere,” but letting the awareness flow through the eyes, into the space in front of one, and being utterly at rest, to find a stillness of awareness that doesn’t need to move. And so then the flow of thoughts — and they’re not right to left or left to right; they’re not forward or back — to allow the space of the mind to become vividly clear, and it’s not in the space of in front of one. Keeping the eyes open actually really helps identify the space of the mind as something distinct from any of the other five senses. In Tibetan it is literally called “the sixth sensory faculty” — manas — or in Tibetan, yi kyi nampar shépa, the mental faculty — well, the mental consciousness; yi wang would be the mental faculty. And to identify that, even when the senses are able to pick up data, there is something else going on, which is our awareness of our own thoughts, that is not subsumed by any of the other five senses.
And especially for some — for our neuroscientist, anyone who is looking in detail at what is consciousness as distinct from its neural correlates to forever get over the idea that the brain itself is producing consciousness, because — I won’t even get into it. It’s nonsense. If one has this kind of an experience of mental consciousness as being a completely distinct phenomenon, with its own faculty of perception and its own field in which those phenomena arise. And so that, as I said, can be a beginning practice in the first five minutes before moving on to a meditation that’s focused on a visualized object or an analytical object. But in the context of a Śhamatha retreat, a retreat focused on achieving this kind of unwavering stability, which is very much what our Center is focused upon — it’s our initial purpose; I won’t say it’s our ultimate purpose, but it’s our initial purpose — one can then spend eight, 10, 12 hours a day just settling the mind in its natural state. And the way that the thoughts arise and release themselves, and the stillness of awareness becomes more and more still, more and more unwavering — it won’t get hijacked by thoughts — that can be a long process, sometimes a very difficult process, but ultimately a very liberating process. One last thing and before we go on to the next because I know there’s so many topics that can come up, I wouldn’t even call this four hours of unwavering samādhi the end of anything. It’s not the end of a path to liberation; it’s not enlightenment, and it’s not really a goal in itself. It is simply having a tool of mental stability that is now fit for the work. And actually, that’s a term, “pliancy,” or being fit for the work, lé su rungwa in Tibetan, of higher practices in meditation. I mentioned earlier vipassanā is — or in Palī, and known in the west as vipaśyanā, the true meaning of that is “higher insight.” And so once one has a tool like that, a stable tool, a really good microscope, or a really good telescope, then that can be used to investigate reality. And it’s that that then opens the way for the whole process — the whole path to liberation in the Buddhist context. So I just wanted to clarify that, that śamatha itself is not really considered the end of anything, in Buddhism, at least.
>>RICK: Yeah, I’m not sure that there is an end of anything. Maybe we can talk about that.
>>EVA: Yeah, I’m sure.
>>RICK: But, so you almost taught us how to meditate or a type of a way of meditating just then. I just want to ask quickly, is there any kind of instruction that one can get online from you or your group? And/or can people go there for a weekend retreat or something and get a bunch of instruction without having to commit to a long program?
>>EVA: So our center is not set up for that kind of shorter retreat right now. It’s not our purpose, and we don’t have the — we don’t have enough cabins for it at the moment. But, so as I’ve mentioned before, B. Alan Wallace, Dr. Alan Wallace, also known oftentimes now as Lama Alan, he is a thoroughly qualified Lama within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He has taught thousands, if not tens of thousands of hours of courses and guided meditations that are available online, principally from the Santa Barbara Institute, SB Institute. So sbinstitute.com, I believe it is — yeah.com. And then alanwallace.org. — actually, I’ve been involved in working on the linking of these websites recently, so that it is as easily accessible as possible from each of our respective websites. So yes, primarily, it’s the teachings of Alan Wallace that our Center for Contemplative Research is based upon at present. There are also lots of teachings on YouTube with Alan Wallace. There’s a whole — it’s called “The Way of Śamatha” retreat that I actually participated in teaching in 2019. It was at the Vajrayāna Institute in Sydney, Australia, and that’s available on YouTube from the Vajrayāna Institute channel. It’s called “The Way of Śamatha 2019, “The Way of Śamatha” retreat with Alan Wallace.
>>RICK: Okay, so people can look that up.
>>EVA: That I actually would highly recommend as a starting point because it was intended as a one-week retreat. All the videos are online, and it goes through the theory and practice of śamatha. And so anyone who has access to YouTube can then go through those videos at their own pace, learn the meditations, take the meditations onto their own cushion, literally. And Alan Wallace is famous for his 24-minute guided meditations, because he’s given, as I say, thousands of them over the years. And even though the — well, there are many different techniques he teaches, but even within a single technique, every time he teaches it, it has new — more nuances, more nuances. And so people who’ve been studying with him for decades never get tired of listening to those 24-minute sessions. But then, of course, as an individual practitioner, it’s our responsibility to extend that. He often suggests minute by minute, make your sessions a little bit longer each day — up to 30 minutes, up to 40 minutes, up to 45 minutes, until it’s quite natural to be meditating for an hour-and-a-half, two hours. Usually, it would be hard to reach two hours not in a retreat environment. There are people who can do it, who can be doing two-hour sessions and then go to their daily life and then come back at night and do another two-hour session, but many people don’t have the stability and the mental strength to do that.
>>RICK: Yeah, or the time, I mean, if you have kids or whatever.
>>EVA: Exactly. Exactly.
>>RICK: Okay, so one question that comes to my mind is, you know, it’s one thing to sit in meditation and have a nice, settled state, or whatever one experiences, but obviously, there’s a lot to life outside those two hours in the day, or whatever it is, and how do you deal with the idea of integrating whatever it is one gains in meditation with the other — with the 24/7 cycle of one’s life. Does it happen automatically, like dipping a cloth in dye and then bleaching it in the sun, and to a certain extent it remains colorfast? Or do you have to sort of do something in the field of activity to retain what you have experienced in meditation or benefit from it?
>>EVA: For sure, practice takes effort, constant effort, and, and much more effort often at the beginning, than later on as new habits have been formed. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this is known as lojong, or training the mind. And the teachings on mind training have a meditative component, and then they have their all-day component, and those are intricately interwoven. And so the kind of meditation that one would be doing for lojong wouldn’t necessarily look just the way that I described. So I was describing a preliminary and what can eventually be the main practice of śamatha. But lojong starts with the cultivation of the four immeasurables, what are known as the four immeasurable qualities of the heart. And this is immeasurable loving-kindness; immeasurable compassion; immeasurable empathetic joy; and immeasurable impartiality. Now, of course, I could talk for hours just on those four, but to say this much, and many people have become familiar with these techniques because they’ve even been secularized within the last few decades in mindfulness-based practices. Cultivating loving-kindness and compassion, in particular, have already become quite popular in that way. But within a Buddhist context, and of course, we could talk for hours about how I would say all of this in a Christian context as well, cultivating loving-kindness so that it is not attachment; it’s not just about recognizing the people we love and cultivating more love for them. That’s great if we can. But to develop a loving-kindness that is free of attachment already means meditating on an impartiality — and this is the way the four are interconnected — an impartiality that equalizes how we, I won’t say feel about, but how we relate to those who have hurt us and those who have helped us. And of course, it takes a lot of reflection in the full scope of a Buddhist worldview to look at how Buddhism means that we have had relationships with every other sentient being, not just every human being, but every sentient being, to such an extent that everyone has been our mother in the past —
>>RICK: Mm — in some lifetime or other.
>>EVA: — Through countless past lifetimes, every being has been our mother. And so for many Westerners, it’s difficult to get to this. It’s difficult to get to this as a realization because there’s not a worldview that even those who have accepted a Buddhist worldview can fully relate to in a way that someone born in the Tibetan Buddhist culture or Bhutanese, Nepalese, Indian culture — of course, they’ve been thinking that way since they learned how to talk that — or maybe before they learned how to talk; they have memories from past lives. But not to belabor that — the point being there are many ways to get to an impartial loving-kindness, which doesn’t mean an indifferent loving-kindness or a just kind of flattened-out loving kindness, a loving-kindness that can raise to the “nth” degree to see through to the depths of what a sentient being is. And so in a Christian language —
>>RICK: To love others, to love your neighbor as yourself.
>>EVA: — as yourself.
>>EVA: And even more so, to love one’s neighbor as a creation of divine love, so that one is seeing past the surface appearances. And that is really the only authentic way to get past the things that people have done, whether to us or to others that are negative, that are harmful, that are despicable. And not in a Pollyanna kind of way, oh, say, oh, I’m overlooking everything, and I’m nonjudgmental, no. Of course, in Buddhist ethics and Christian ethics, there’s no room for throwing ethics to the winds. On the contrary, it’s holding people accountable in all the ways we need to hold them accountable because we — a lot of emotion comes up — because we have seen through to the depths of what that being could be.
>>RICK: Why does that stir up so much emotion?
>>EVA: Because it’s, if we let come to mind some of the people who are doing the greatest harm in the world right now, and we can even for a moment think that if we could see through to their essential nature, it’s the purity of a divine, a “divinizable” nature — I’ll use that phrase for now — a nature that is fundamentally pure, and through a process of spirit — and dedicated spiritual practice could be purified perfectly and to see the —
>>RICK: I’m reminded of the Pogo comic strip: We have met the enemy and he is us.
>>EVA: Yeah, yeah. And, but actually —
>>RICK: His essential nature is our essential nature.
>>EVA: Well, of course, that has a different — that phrase has a good — different connotation and more like what I was saying earlier about when we can recognize how much of our suffering is coming from our own projections onto a world as well. Our enemy is the reflection of that which may be the worst in us. But in the — that’s maybe more in our —
>>RICK: But when you talk about essential nature, there’s really only one of us, and —
>>EVA: Ooh, I wouldn’t say that (overlapping).
>>RICK: — wouldn’t you say?
>>RICK: No? Okay.
>>EVA: I wouldn’t say that — not Buddhism and not Christianity. I know that (overlapping) —
>>RICK: It’s more of a Vedanta thing.
>>EVA: — yeah, that would be much more — and it’s the right language in Vedanta. But in Buddhism, mindstreams, the continuum of consciousness from life to life, is individual.
>>RICK: Yes, got you there.
>>EVA: And there are countless of them. There were — there’s never anywhere where the Buddha says there’s a finite number of beings — of sentient beings. And yet one can vow to save all of them in a bodhisattva vow. And I haven’t gotten my mind around that, and I’m okay with it, but “countless” sentient beings — now in some contexts in Buddhism, “countless” actually is a number. It’s just like referring to a very large exponential number, but it is certainly beyond anything that a human mind can count. But they are individual.
>>RICK: Yeah, let me probe you on that a little bit.
>>EVA: Yeah, I’d love to because it’s a central topic —
>>RICK: Let me — yeah, well, I’ll give you a moment just to think here.
>>EVA: (Inaudible) but because we got on to that, I just don’t want to lose the thread that we got onto this apropos of lojong, or the training of the mind and bringing practices into our daily lives. And so that’s why we have deliberately opened this Pandora’s box of meditation isn’t just about calming the mind. Meditation is about a complete transformation of worldview. And calming the mind is developing a technique and a tool to have a mind and a heart and an emotional system stable enough to do the real work, which is this transformation of the way that we experience and interact with other beings, what we bring to the world in every endeavor we undertake. So that’s how enormous it is. And then of course, it has to be integrated from the cushion time to the outer lifetime.
>>RICK: Got you. Well, there’s so many things we can talk about here. Let’s try to, like, get into the meat of it.
>>EVA: Yeah, yeah. Right.
>>RICK: So I’m on board with, and just from everything I’ve learned and experienced to whatever extent I have, that, yeah, there are — our individuality in some subtle form transmigrates from life to life. And I’ve heard people argue that that’s not part of Buddhism, that somehow Buddhism doesn’t admit that there is ultimately a person, and therefore it can’t be that there’s a person who, you know, reincarnates, but rather that somehow or other you just take a bucket from the ocean of karma, and that becomes a life. But it sounds like from everything I’ve heard you say, Buddhism is more on board with the way Hinduism sees it, which is that we have a soul, and that soul evolves over subsequent, you know, a whole series of lifetimes and, you know, moves up the scale of evolution; is that correct?
>>RICK: What do you mean?
>>EVA: Neither/nor, neither/nor. Oh, it’s delicious to me to see how many different ways there are at coming from — at the question. But, so not a drop of — not a cup of water from the great ocean of karma; that doesn’t work in Buddhism at.
>>RICK: No good.
>>EVA: Because there’s no collective consciousness in Buddhism. There’s just no collective consciousness.
>>RICK: Okay, so there is no sort of collective unconscious or repository of karma that’s —
>>EVA: It’s not a Buddhist idea.
>>RICK: — okay, good. Fine.
>>EVA: Not a Buddhist idea. But there’s not a soul that transmigrates from life to life, either.
>>RICK: Oh. So what happens when — how does reincarnation work?
>>EVA: Yeah, but this is the key; this is, like, this is what was so revolutionary about what the Shakyamuni Buddha taught, Gautama Buddha taught. So when we can say in Buddhism, there is such a thing as a person — a person — the word I’m referring to in Tibetan is kangzak in Sanskrit pudgala, and if pudgala is taken in an ultimate sense, then Buddhism can’t accept it. There was an early school of Buddhism called the Pudgalavādins, who said, no, there really is a person, but that was later released and said, no, that isn’t really a person (overlapping).
>>RICK: And let’s define what “person” is here as we go along.
>>EVA: Yeah, that’s what I have to get to. So in — I actually looked it up, and I’m going to get the Tibetan up on my screen so that I don’t get it wrong. The Tibetan of a kangzak, in Tibetan, and unless one’s studied Tibetan, probably very few people know this. Kang means full; zak means to — sometimes zakpa — it means impure, but it also means an outflow, but it also can mean “to be destroyed.” So doing Omnimedia translation of the Tibetan definition of kangzak, it’s “on the basis of the five aggregates” —
>>RICK: Which are like subtle elements or something?
>>EVA: — which are form, feelings, discrimination — as in this is good, this is bad, I like this, I don’t like this — a whole array of other mental factors, and raw consciousness itself as in each of the six consciousness faculties: the eye consciousness, the ear consciousness, and the mental consciousness. So Buddhism asserts that yes, there are five aggregates — six consciousnesses, but five aggregates — which basically is like saying, a collection of body and mind. And so on the basis of a collection of body and mental factors, mental phenomena, there is merely labeled a person. And in Tibetan, there are different words for this, but in English, all of them could be person, human being, a sentient being. And when in that stream, that stream of a being, there are both faults and good qualities; that is what one is filled with, gangwa. But sometimes, those flow out, and they’re destroyed — zakpa. So that’s what a kangzak is. And so basically, if one gets the idea of a person as a temporary conglomerate that then moves on, but when Buddhism refers to that which moves from life to life, it’s not the person. It’s the stream of very subtle mental consciousness — well, actually, both very subtle and subtle.
>>RICK: But is that stream associated with any deeper core that it aggregates around? So, I mean, was Eva Natanya, you know, somebody in the 19th century or in the 16th century who has kind of moved from body to body? Or are you a sort of a unique conglomerate right now that has never existed, or in any way, shape or form previously.
>>EVA: So this is what’s so difficult from a Christian or a Hindu point of view to express, and it took me a long time to get my mind and heart around it, which is, there’s a continuity of consciousness, and as I said, a subtle stream of consciousness. And that is what uniquely — and again, it’s metaphorical to say but it’s good enough to say “carries” karma. The imprints, the memories of past actions are carried in that stream of awareness. That awareness is not locked into any physical substrate at the coarse level. There is considered to be a subtle prāṇa, or a wind, that that consciousness is associated with, and one could say — and then I will get into the distinctions between subtle and very subtle, that’s a Vajrayāna point of what they mean by “very subtle” — but there is something at the energetic level that is also moving from life to life. But everything we as human beings think of as “a person” is not what travels. And so the uniqueness — and this has been really important for me actually, as a Christian, and as a Buddhist, to establish for myself, which is the uniqueness of the individual person, which is so core to Christianity, it’s not defiled, shall I say, from a Buddhist point of view, because they acknowledge that this person with this name, with this physical body, with this brain configuration, with this set of memories, that’s a human being, is unique. And so insofar as Buddhism does acknowledge that there could have been a human being, even 50 years ago, whose stream of awareness continued into the womb to become this person, me, they’ll acknowledge that that human being and this human being are different people. And yet the stream of karma is a single stream, and that’s why we are responsible for that which will be experienced by the person of the future life.
>>RICK: Well, I mean, you might have been a truck driver in the 1930s or something. So in that respect, you’re certainly a different person. But let’s say that, you know, I mean, let’s, let’s take it away from that analogy just to say that, let’s say I’m a virtuous person, I do good works, and I help people, and I feed the poor, and I, you know, I live a good life, and somewhere or other that karma is being accumulated. And it’s going into some karmic bank account of some sort, and then I die, and then somebody is born, and does that somebody — or I could use the opposite example: I lie, and I cheat, and I steal, and I kill people — that karma accumulates, and somebody is born. Is that a completely different somebody than whatever it is that I am, and somehow, they get stuck with or blessed by the karma that I have accrued, or what?
>>EVA: Well, this is where it’s the neither/nor and the both/and, which is, insofar as we suffer things that we’re not responsible for in this life, whether it’s a child being born with AIDS or being born into a refugee camp or be — all the suffering that we see — overt, horrific suffering that we see in this world that we — that makes people so averse to the very idea of karma, because they think, don’t tell me that person deserved that. And Buddhism is saying, that’s not what we’re telling you. We’re just saying there’s a karmic cause for that, and it’s somehow within the mindstream of that being, and it can be purified with certain practices, which is a positive thought; it’s actually an optimistic thought. It doesn’t make the suffering any less while it’s happening. But it’s not as if Buddhism is saying we’re being blamed for the deeds of a person of a past life. Now, what’s very difficult for many people to handle is that the counterexample that you used of lie, kill, cheat, et cetera, those deeds as a human being are so heinous karmically that one wouldn’t be born as a human being again. Those are causes for a hell realm within Buddhism.
>>RICK: But wait a minute. You said that one isn’t really the — whatever we are isn’t actually born as another kind of being anyway, that the other kind of being actually has no, it doesn’t contain the identity of the previous being, so — and then another point, what about the Dalai Lama? Isn’t he supposed to have been the Dalai Lama last time, and they went to a whole lot of trouble to figure out who he was, so they got the right guy?
>>EVA: Mm-hmm. Right. So that is a case, and this is, like, we have to look at the two extremes of the trajectories for it to start to crystallize as an idea, to speak of His Holiness the Dalai Lama or any other of hundreds of reincarnation lineages within Tibetan Buddhism in particular. Now, admittedly, it’s been — even His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself has spoken out against the tulku system, saying maybe this needs to be rethought in the 21st century. It’s not functioning anymore for Tibetan exile; that’s a different situation, a different thing, and in many ways, it’s a political and a social issue, because it has to do with the recognition of tulkus. But in principle, what that recognition is seeking out — and certainly I’ve heard stories that are so convincing that they got the right person, as it were — that is a case where someone is already so far along in their spiritual path, that they can go into the dying process lucidly, like a lucid dream. They know they’re dead. Some are able to remain in a state known as tukdam, or the body doesn’t decay; it doesn’t even start to get to the decaying process for a week, two weeks, sometimes longer. And there’s warmth at the heart, but the person is brain-dead and no metabolism anymore, but there is a warmth at the heart, and they are able to stay in a meditation on the clear light of death for a sustained period of time. That means they go through the — what’s known as the intermediate period or the bardo, also lucidly. And that bardo being, that intermediate state being is not bound by the physical limitations we have as human beings. And they have the virtue and the meditative samādhi in the state of the bardo to direct themselves to exactly where they want to let that stream of consciousness and mind enter a womb. I mean, that language is used. It’s okay to say, “a stream of mind and subtle energy entering a womb,” and then becoming associated with the coarse physical substrate of a fertilized egg. But speaking in the human realm, of course, there are other ways of taking birth in other realms; I won’t get into that. But it’s basically saying only people who are at very high levels of the spiritual path even have the capacity to choose their rebirth. And that’s what the Tibetan Buddhist tulku system or reincarnation system is recognizing; that is not a universal phenomenon.
>>EVA: (Overlapping) humans is what it’s saying.
>>RICK: But whether you choose it or not — let’s say you’re not so highly evolved, and you don’t get a whole lot of choice about when — you’re kind of compelled by karma to take a birth —
>>EVA: Yes. Mm-hmm.
>>RICK: — but that would still imply that it’s the same person that is taking a birth compulsorily, whereas with an advanced, you know, yogi there, they have more volition in the process, but one way or the other, it’s the same jiva, you know, that is incarnating in a new physical body, it sounds to me, I mean, to a certain extent, all this is hypothetical to me. And it’s like, but they are interesting hypotheses to explore. And I’m not saying we have to sort of arrive at rock-solid belief in any of this, or in any — many other things we could possibly talk about, but I enjoy playing with these kinds of hypotheses.
>>EVA: Yeah. In Buddhism, it’s quite serious because it’s not simply a hypothesis. And actually, admittedly, one of the goals of the Center for Contemplative Research is to have enough people with stable enough samādhi that they can actually have verifiable memories of past lives. Because if — from certain states of samādhi, that’s known historically to be possible. And so if that could be done under the scrutiny of scientific research, that would be quite, quite extraordinary.
>>RICK: Do you know Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia?
>>EVA: Yes, exactly.
>>RICK: Oh, yeah, you studied there, right. I interviewed him two weeks ago.
>>EVA: Well, I never met him —
>>RICK: Ian Stevenson, yeah.
>>EVA: — but Alan Wallace is a great admirer, a great admirer of his work.
>>EVA: So, but back to why it’s still not right to say it’s the person being reincarnated. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not the same person as the 13th Dalai Lama. It’s different when it gets into that unbroken continuity of a very highly realized being. But back to, and something I said earlier, which is if someone has done truly harmful deeds and never purified them in this life, never had a regret, never had a recognition this harmed people; it was wrong; I would never want to do this again. Those are all purificatory actions that can deeply lessen the karmic implications of something. But if someone has done horrible deeds and rejoiced in it, and gone to their death that way, according to Buddhism, that’s the kind of karma that will not produce another human being. That’s the kind of (inaudible) will produce —
>>RICK: Right. It might be born as a sea slug or something.
>>EVA: — or a hell realm.
>>RICK: Right, hell realm, yeah.
>>EVA: That’s what the hell realms are.
>>RICK: Well, let’s — okay, I’m sorry. Go ahead.
>>EVA: Yeah, no, I should continue the sentence which is, does that hell-realm being blame some human being for having done the karma that got them there? It’s very difficult to conceive of.
>>RICK: Yeah. And is it the same being, and if it isn’t, then why did that poor hell-realm being end up there, you know? Was it —
>>EVA: Yeah, it’s — it is — this is why, for people who go looking for Buddhist worldview, because they were fed up with the Christian teachings on hell and damnation that you don’t get a much better option, because it is just as serious. It is just as serious. But the reason I keep saying neither/nor and both/and is because as long as we associate the idea of person as all of the aggregates, all of the things about what it means to be me, then that kind of attachment will not be able to handle these kinds of topics. Because it’s going to — it’ll say, what will happen to me in a hell realm, that terror, or how could I have been that other person in the past? It really messes with our idea of what it is to be a human being. But if we can think of it, and this is where dreamwork can become very, very powerful in helping to assimilate these ideas, how many people with 20-minute lifespans have we been in our dreams? And some of them look like the person we identify with in this life. For some people with very rich dream lives, they can show up as a caterpillar; they can show up as a — I did hear a story of somebody who showed up in their dream as a long-playing record. They were a record player, and they were a record in their dreams, spinning. So this then touches, and maybe this could be our next topic, on to the Buddhist concept of illusion, is that the person is illusory. The very fact that we’re the person we think we are right now is a collection of appearances that we’re identifying in a certain way. That’s why the definition of a person in Tibetan is saying, on the basis of these aggregates, this is labeled, and that’s what gets to be a person. So as long as we’re attached to that as meaning “person”, then this whole reincarnation idea doesn’t make sense. As we know, the Buddha denied the idea of a soul or an ātman that was permanent and inherently existent, and like a thing that moves from life to life. So it’s not like platonic notions of rebirth either. And this is why, incidentally, I would argue that the Christian refutation or rejection of ideas of reincarnation were based on ideas that are not the same as Buddhist ideas. So Buddhist ideas of rebirth are not the ones that were rejected explicitly by Christianity in its early centuries.
But as we can, through meditation practice and through vipaśyanā deconstruction of even what we think we are right now, it can make more and more sense, well, what is this subtle stream of consciousness that is simply carrying karmic propensities, karmic memories, karmic imprints, karmic possibilities? And that turns into something in the future, and I have the ability — it actually becomes a practice of compassion — I have the ability now to practice compassion for the person who will be the continuation of this stream in a future life, and out of compassion for that person’s experience, I can do virtuous deeds now and purify nonvirtuous ones. And this is actually a doorway coming back to loving-kindness, coming back to compassion, immeasurable compassion. Śantideva in the eighth century in India used this argument to say once you understand the emptiness of yourself, to feel any caring about who you’ll be in a future life should be the same logic by which you feel caring for anyone else who is lateral. You see how I’m doing the forward back and the lateral to all sentient beings? Because effectively, there are no more “me” and no more “not me,” ultimately, speaking, than a future life and a past life are me or are not me. But this is not collective consciousness. Do you see the difference? I’m talking in terms of streams, and in terms of — and distinct streams, but because both are merely labeled collections, we should care as much about the future continuation of this collection as about all the other collections who exist right now.
>>RICK: Sure. Which, I’m seeing a quote here that I wrote down that Tsongkhapa and Nāgārjuna both taught that although everything is ultimately illusory, what we do matters. You were just leading into that a little bit.
>>EVA: Oh, yeah.
>>RICK: And I think I think Vedanta would also see it this way, that, you know, ultimately, you could say nothing ever happened. But that is sort of — you can’t live that way. And there’s a sort of a transactional reality — I forget the Sanskrit word for it — but, in which things are happening, even if — even though they aren’t the ultimate reality, and they matter, and it matters, what you do, and so on. So if you kind of try to brush it off and say, oh, everything’s illusion, so it doesn’t matter, you get into a lot of trouble. And we’re obviously shifting gears because I could talk to you for the next two hours about this reincarnation thing, and I still think we wouldn’t resolve it, or I wouldn’t properly understand it. But I don’t mean to abandon that topic, but there’s still a number of other things we want to — but you did touch on that, the notion of illusion, and yet things matter, even though they might ultimately not exist.
>>EVA: Mm-hmm. So in Buddhism, the term that’s used is pratītyasamutpāda, which is often translated as “dependent origination” or “dependently related events.”
>>RICK: Vyavaharika, that was the Sanskrit term I was trying to think of.
>>EVA: Yeah. Yeah, Vyavaharika, because that would be I think, what’s in Tibetan tanyé takpa and in English “conventionally labeled” reality. I think, actually, the same word is used by Nāgārjuna in a Buddhist context, so these words were passed back and forth sometimes between systems within India. And in Buddhism, the “dependently originated world of appearances” and the emptiness of those appearances, which we could think of as being the absence of appearances, are inextricably — I won’t even say linked; they are two sides of the same coin. So this is why there can be a reference to “the two realities.” But there can’t be one of those realities without the other. It’s not as if you can have emptiness without dependent origination or dependent origination without emptiness, and indeed —
>>RICK: Now, please define the “dependent origination”?
>>EVA: — so it is — there are actually several levels of defining it. The most, the easiest one to understand is “causes and conditions;” things depend on other things. At the subtlest level, it’s dependence upon labeling, upon a conventional designation of “this is this;” this is this. But the more deeply we analyze, the more we see that each of those dependent designations, they’re not arbitrary, but they are malleable. And this is what — so the fact they’re not arbitrary is what enables the Buddhist Middle Way system to avoid nihilism, as in, well, whatever you say goes; no, they’re not arbitrary; they are caused. We are forced to label things in the way we do because of past actions, because of past habituations. Even ants and mosquitoes are forced to label the things they’re attracted to as desirable and the things they’re not attracted to as undesirable. So labeling is that deep. That’s what I’m trying to say; it’s not just as in language labeling. The heat-seeking of a mosquito is a kind of a labeling. But there’s also a dependence of parts and whole. That’s one of the intermediate stages of understanding emptiness, of recognizing that every whole is dependent upon its parts. And you keep — if you break things down into further and further parts, you’ll never find the smallest part, as it were, whether of time or space or mind or matter. And so, Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism or tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, is famous for having said, it’s through dependent origination that we will understand emptiness, and it’s through emptiness, through seeing that things have no nature that we will see there must have been things there. There must have been appearances for there to be anything to lack an inherent nature. It’s not as if there’s a real emptiness out there. And Nāgārjuna himself, centuries, I mean, the beginning of the Common Era was saying, if you grasp onto emptiness as some having some kind of inherent existence, then you’re lost. Because the very thing that was there to cure our grasping to things as inherently existent we’ve just made as one more inherently existent thing, namely, emptiness. So that’s why I actually really object to a translation of “the void,” because “the void” makes it sound like there’s a void somewhere, so it’s emptiness, and you’ve got to go there and realize emptiness. No, you realize emptiness through recognizing the subtle dependent origination of any phenomenon.
>>RICK: Let’s do a bit of a jump-transition here — oh, you have an (overlapping)? Go for it.
>>EVA: Oh, I just thought of something, though, that because we got that far in dependent origination, then “illusion” is very easy to explain. Because all it means is things appear to have inherent natures, but they don’t really. So for anything to be an illusion, it has to appear one way, but really, it’s another way. That’s all it means in Buddhism at the Sūtrayana level, the open level, is things look as if they’re really there. This looks like a notebook. But if I analyze, first of all and see, oh, it’s just a human labeling that even thinks of this is paper, even thinks of it as something I would know how to write on, and so on — the ant isn’t thinking of it that way. But then at a deeper level, if one goes down to the particles and the subatomic particles and so on, we won’t find anything here —
>>RICK: Right. So —
>>EVA: — and so it’s illusory because it looked like it was really there.
>>RICK: — yeah. And the same is true of a speeding bus, but you don’t step in front of it.
>>EVA: Exactly, exactly. And karma is illusory, but it functions, and it creates entire lifetimes —
>>EVA: — of experience. So this comes right back to why things matter.
>>RICK: Exactly. Good. I think hopefully, everybody gets that. Every one of these topics would be fun to talk to you about at greater length, but I want to sort of keep sampling the smorgasbord here.
>>EVA: Sure. Sure. Sure, sure, sure.
>>RICK: Elizabeth from Colorado, whom you may know, sent in a nice question. She sent in a couple of good questions. Let me ask this one: How similar — and this will shift us into Christianity a little bit — how similar would you say is the Christian Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — to the Buddhist Trikāya of dharmakāya, sambhogakāya, and nirmāṇakāya?
>>EVA: Okay, this is a great question and one I have put a lot of thought into, with no final conclusions precisely because when we’re in the world of interreligious dialogue, there is no scripture that can say, oh, now we’ve got the answer.
>>RICK: And don’t pretend anybody knows what those terms mean; you’re going have to define them, yeah.
>>EVA: Yeah, no, I will; I’ll explain them as I go. But what I mean is that when one’s working within a particular religious tradition with its own rich scriptural tradition, one can do very creative, analytical, philosophical work. But then there’s always the scripture to create the boundaries, as it were, of, yes, this, this can be orthodox thinking; this might really stray and get us into trouble. But when one comes into interreligious dialogue, it’s as if we have to create new rules as we go because it’s the very dance of thinking through in the way that the other tradition thinks that makes it so fascinating, so enriching, so meaningful, but also potentially dangerous, because if one doesn’t truly understand the way the terms are used in each tradition, then one will often end up projecting one’s own tradition’s view of those things onto the other.
So the short answer is that I believe there are deep resonances between the three, but they don’t map onto each other exactly. So in Christianity, the Doctrine of the Trinity is considered to be one of the most philosophically subtle, advanced, difficult to understand, and ultimately meaningful. Many of the early church fathers — Augustine comes to mind — but many of the early church fathers were saying, this is the revealed nature of God Himself; how could we avoid thinking about it? How could we progress in our spiritual lives without giving enough due reverence to thinking through this topic? And the most essential thing to say, I think, is that the Christian revelation, which was worked out over time in the early church — there wasn’t any full-fledged Doctrine of the Trinity as early as the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ was the initial revelatory event that makes Christianity what it is. But the Doctrine of the Trinity evolved through the reflection and experience of the church over several centuries. And while holding to the oneness of God as revealed in the Jewish Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament, the early Christians came to understand that God had revealed the divine reality in three distinct and mutually — I won’t say incompatible, deeply compatible, but in commensurable forms. That insofar as Christ Jesus, being God, could have a relationship with God the Father, if one saw Christ as in any way less than the Father, not fully divine, then that would not do justice to the revelation of Christ as divine that was already established. And so there’s a relationship there, so they can’t be exactly numerically one. And likewise, insofar as Christ could say he’s sending the Holy Spirit, and there was an experience of the Holy Spirit in the early church through the “Coming of the Paraclete,” as it was known, that was quite distinct from, intimately connected to, but quite distinct from the experience of the risen Christ. And so, theologically, philosophically, the early church fathers came to understand there is what’s later known as an Immanent Trinity of the Father begetting the Son from eternity — there’s never a time when there was not the relationship between Father and Son — and the Holy Spirit. Depending on Orthodox and Western theology — one can’t say it the same way in both contexts — but either understanding the Spirit as the very relationship, the embodiment, the reality — I won’t say “embodiment” — but the essential reality of the relationship between the Father and the Son becoming another person, and “person” meaning something completely different in a Christian context now. That — and then, in an Orthodox context, it would be the Spirit who proceeds from the Father, the breath of the Father. I know I’m getting into too much detail, but it’s almost impossible to talk about without this. So the notion of an Immanent Trinity that then reveals itself to human beings within time, within space, or what’s known as the Economic Trinity, and then Christ as the incarnate Son of God is the same as the Son of God, but there can still be a verbal distinction between Jesus Christ, the man and the Son who was incarnate.
All of that is to say, then, to jump to the Buddhist side, dharmakāya refers to, literally, it’s the “collection,” it’s the word “body” in the figurative sense of body, the embodiment, the wholeness of dharmas, which are all phenomena, but seen primarily from their ultimate point of view, which is the Dharma, which is the emptiness of all things, inseparable from the appearances but in terms of their ultimate reality. So at one level, it would seem like, well, is there some connection between dharmakāya and God the Father, as the Source, the all-encompassing transcendent Source of all things? And I’ll just leave that — maybe. At the level of the Immanent Trinity, where the Son is seen to be the Word spoken from the mouth of the Father using very figurative language for something inconceivable, the wisdom of God through whom all things are created, it’s somehow in Christian context touching upon this unfathomable bridge between Ultimate Reality that has no elaboration, no differentiation, no variety, and the coming into being of the source of variety, of creation. And it’s not that the Son is created. That’s what’s so important in the Christian doctrine, is the Son is generated; the Son is co-equal with the Father, but it’s through that generation that then all things can be created.
So in Buddhism, there are many different ways to describe the saṃbhogakāya. For the moment, jumping to the Great Perfection view of saṃbhogakāya, which is perhaps the most sophisticated and advanced, the saṃbhogakāya can be understood as the radiance of pristine, immaculate awareness itself, so the essential nature of that awareness is emptiness. But the radiance, like if one could imagine the Divine Light, which is not physical light, which is the expression of divine awareness, that for those who are highly realized, they actually start to perceive that radiance.
>>RICK: Celestial perception. Just a word.
>>EVA: Yeah, yeah. I just hesitate, because I can know that that word can be used in very different contexts, and I’m afraid something so specific within the Dzogchen context, but that’s the only reason I hesitate.
>>RICK: Okay, good. Yeah.
>>EVA: You can tell I’m really a stickler for holding (overlapping) in their own context.
>>RICK: That’s okay. That’s okay.
>>EVA: So in a sense, and I have said this before –I’m not attached to it, but my mind does keep going through this logic, which is there’s a sense in which the saṃbhogakāya can sometimes be closer to the way that Christians think of the Holy Spirit because it is not readily visible in physical form. But it is energy; it is light; it is divine light. In the Orthodox tradition, they would talk about the “uncreated energies,” by which a devoted Hesychast or one who follows the path of silence, is divinized. And that’s not any one of the three persons per se, but it’s the uncreated energies of God that come through the Spirit to divinize a person. And so the saṃbhokāya can sometimes have a similar place, a similar function within Buddhist thought. But then, on the other hand, Christ as the incarnate man, the incarnate human being, would seem to be closer to what Buddhism refers to as nirmāṇakāya, or those forms that appear as beings in our world whom ordinary people can see. So that’s the roughest sense in which I could say there are relationships between the three. But anyone who has studied Buddhism in depth knows that the multiplicity involved, both at the level of saṃbhogakāya and even more so at the level of the nirmāṇakāya — there are countless nirmāṇakāya — there’s a view from which this very table, this very computer could be nirmāṇakāya, manifest in order to guide me, you, others, along the path. And Christianity doesn’t mean that when they talk about the incarnation of Christ; that’s a unique event. That’s a unique person who is incarnate.
So maybe that was a long explanation to say why it’s — the more I thought it through, the more problematic they are as trying to map one onto the other. And yet, I don’t see that as actually a problem in terms of the overall dialogue between traditions because one could see the entire Immanent Trinity at the level of the dharmakāya. One can see the uncreated energies of the Holy Spirit infused into the baptized and the confirmed who are practicing fully and committedly along the path as being the infusion of blessing from the level of the saṃbhogakāya that we can’t see, but we can experience in the form of blessing. And then the way that Christ as the first fruits of the resurrected, but also as incarnate God, gives us some glimpse of what Buddhism means by a nirṃāṇakāya, especially what would be known as the supreme nirmāṇkāya, namely, a Buddha with the 32 marks and 80 signs — oh, that’s a manifestation of the mind of the Buddha in human form. So they shed light on each other, but I wouldn’t map them onto each other.
>>RICK: Let me give you my perspective a little bit, and it may be sort of dumb compared to everything you’ve just said. But I’d be interested to hear how you think it might fit in. When you say the Father or God, what I conceive of is, in a sense, staring us right in the face because every little thing we look at, if you actually look close enough, there’s this incredible intelligence orchestrating it, but that is everywhere; that is omnipresent, all-pervading. So somewhere, I guess, in the Christian scriptures, it says that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. And by that I — by God, in that sense, I just mean some kind of oceanic, all-pervading, all-encompassing, all-inclusive intelligence, which when you get right down to it, there’s nothing other than that, but there appears to be because we have these appearances, which, to the untrained eye don’t look or feel like what I just described. Then you have people who have the depth of realization to actually see the world that way. They behold that divinity or omniscience, or whatever you want to call it, in every little thing; they see the world in terms of that. And given the vastness of the universe, which is beyond comprehension, I suspect, and given the — what we see here on Earth, that life is just trying to manifest in every which way it can, even at the bottom of the ocean, and next to some steam vent or something, I have a feeling that the universe is teeming with life, that there are probably trillions of highly-evolved civilizations scattered throughout it. And each of those planets, each of those civilizations has had numerous people who are, who have realized God, who have, you know, become enlightened, however, they may describe it, but they’ve tapped into that fundamental nature of reality. So there’s all that, but I do have a little bit of a hard time viewing Jesus as unique in the entire universe. Given that perspective, I sort of feel like there’s this evolutionary force that is bringing the universe into form and evolving it to more and more complex forms, and that the culmination of that is the, you know, the form of a being sophisticated and complex enough in its functioning and through, you know, various methods, pure enough to become a perfect reflector of that divine intelligence, and we’ve seen a number of such beings here on Earth, I believe, and there probably have been trillions of them throughout the universe. I doubt that Jesus is on tour from planet to planet, given — I don’t mean to sound crass — that, you know, God is perfectly capable of giving birth to, so to speak, such beings everywhere they are needed and everywhere that is, you know, ready to appreciate or accommodate such a person. So that was a bit long-winded, but what do you think about all that?
>>EVA: Well, in one sense, it is close to what — closer to what Buddhism expresses, which is that there are countless nirmāṇakāya who are sent to countless worlds according to the needs of sentient beings,
>>RICK: Not necessarily sent from someplace, but they just evolve on the —
>>EVA: Sent — well, sent from the dharmakāya, because the two — so the sambhogakāya and nirmāṇakāya. And for those who aren’t familiar with these terms, sambhogakāya, think of the images of Buddhas that you’ve seen in sublime Buddhist art that look almost human, but not quite human, but suprahuman. But they are actually described to be made of, if I can even use such language, as very subtle energy. And so saṃbhogakāyas are only even perceivable to those who are highly realized in their understanding of emptiness. They’re, to our coarse sight, we couldn’t perceive a sambhogakāya, but nirmāṇakāya, then being countless forms, limitless in the kind of forms that could appear. And so from a certain perspective, everything we perceive could be a nirmāṇakāya. But in classic Mahāyāna doctrine, the two form bodies, whether sambhogakāya at the very subtle level, or nirmānakāya at the coarser level, are emitted from the omniscience and the bodhicitta, or the sublime compassion of a buddha. So they’re emitted from the dharmakāya; they are generated from the dharmakāya. So when you started to say “evolved,” I would say no, because insofar as worlds are suffering worlds, and the beings in them are generated by ignorance, karma, and mental afflictions, which is what Buddhism says saṃsaric beings are generated from, they themselves would not generate nirmāṇakāyas. Nirmāṇakāyas have to come from the enlightened mind.
>>RICK: So the distinction between an avatar and a saint who rises up through a human life to become a saint, something like that?
>>EVA: Yes, yes. Of course from the perspective of the Great Perfection — and this is what gets very subtle — our true nature, not only our lack of inherent existence, which is our emptiness, but our Buddha nature in the sense of the pristine awareness that is always present and pervades every state of mind we’ve ever had, even when we’re not aware of it, that Buddha-nature, as I say, being always present, when we progress far enough along the path, we will realize that we were always Buddhas, and that the experience of being sentient beings mired in karma and mental afflictions and ignorance, which make the all-too-real appearances of suffering arise — so it’s not saying Buddhas suffer; no, we never said that — it’s that the very experience of being a sentient being comes out of a misperception in the first place. It’s a very long and prolonged misperception. But once realizing that the true nature of pristine awareness, in which all the sambhogakāya manifestations are already complete — and this is a doctrine unique to the Great Perfection, that the sambhogakāyas are already complete, within us, not yet perceived by the sentient being who thinks they’re here but perceived by all other buddhas — when that becomes manifest, then they’ll see that there never were any sentient beings. And so then the dichotomy of someone who’s traveling along the path as sinner to saint, as I think you used the phrase just now, or in a Buddhist context, the practitioner who becomes a bodhisattva who travels through the bodhisattva bhūmis who someday becomes a buddha, yes, even in Dzogchen, they acknowledge that that path exists. One has to go through stages; there’s no way not to go through stages. The process of realization itself reveals that — what one always was, namely, a nirmāṇakāya. But from a Christian perspective, and I think you can tell I have deep, deep reverence for acknowledging how — well, any tradition holds its own doctrines and worldviews within themselves; I just — I bow to that, because such goodness has come out of it in many different forms and contexts. But speaking of Christianity, specifically now, the single-pointed reverence, the singular word of God made flesh. within the context of a worldview that wasn’t looking at countless universes. I mean, 2,000 years ago, even a thousand years ago, that wasn’t the worldview of the people who had become Christian. And so we’re looking at a single world —
>>RICK: Which is why the church got really upset when Galileo started to pop that bubble.
>>EVA: — at first. At first. Of course, Christian scientists now have thoroughly integrated —
>>EVA: — the, how much more there is to creation and how much more than — but how much more than there is that is saved by Christ. And this is when the mystical aspect of the Christ as the cosmic savior, this is where even artistic, sacred imagery of the crucifix, where Christ is reaching out to the ends of space itself, the reality of a singularity. And I’m not sure if I mean that in the quantum physics, black-hole sense right now, but maybe I do. We are deeply attracted to the idea of a singularity where everything else breaks down. And the — sorry, I’ll go back and use a Vajrayāna idea to explain for myself at least — maybe it’s of some help to others — the value of seeing that sacred heart of Christ burst open for all reality at a single moment of time in death that would become resurrection from the cross. That dissolution of the coarse and subtle prāṇas and mental consciousness of the person who was Jesus purifying the whole world, the sins of the world, past, present, future in a single point. For anyone who’s familiar with the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen, or “giving and taking,” this is the ultimate Tonglen of taking in all things into the heart of Christ, dissolving it there, overcoming death, quite literally. That’s what — the Vajrayāna yogis are said to have conquered death through certain very subtle body practices, but Christ manifesting that in a way that all could see, and for a culture, frankly, that didn’t have those practices. The revelation needed to be different in that culture. Samādhi itself had not been cultivated in the same way — maybe to some extent in the height of the Greek world, Pythagoras, and such — but it’s not as though the kind of unwavering samādhi that was quite widespread in India, certainly, by the turn from the BCE to the Common Era — it wasn’t there. It wasn’t what the Jewish people had focused upon. And so if God needs to reveal the transcendence of death, the conquering of death in this particular way, the transformation of suffering into eternal life is perfect. And I used — and I want to say the symbol is perfect, but there’s — actually Karl Rahner spoke about this or wrote about this — the Real Symbol, the symbol that is the Reality. And actually, that makes sense, in Buddhist terms, too, when everything is symbols, everything is merely labeled identities, but it’s that that makes up our dependently originated reality. The symbol that is the Reality is a suitable basis for faith. And we’ve seen that, as you would know from what I know you’ve listened to, I’ve deep reverence for the Orthodox Hesychast tradition, mainly because they raised the bar so high as to what people needed to do to follow the Christian path. I have no doubt that their practice has brought them to the heights of union with God.
>>RICK: Oh, sure. Me, neither, and I certainly have no argument with people holding their chosen ideal at the highest possible level. I’m just saying that the universe is so large that most of it is probably outside our light cone, you know, outside the realm of what we could even possibly see because you know, the speed of light being what it is. And so it’s so vast, I just have a hard time assigning any supremacy or exclusivity to our little planet or anyone who has lived on it, no matter how exalted a soul he may have been. I just kind of think that, you know, God is so vast in His — I used the word His — in Their greatness and omniscience and omnipotence, that there are wonders and wondrous beings throughout the universe and all kinds of dramas that have taken place. And by beings, I mean, not only earthly or physical beings that we could see if we happen to encounter them, but all kinds of higher realms and beings populating those and perhaps lower realms and people — beings populating those. So it’s just, I don’t know, if you just kind of zoom out as far as you can possibly zoom out, anything that has happened on this particular planet, no matter how significant or profound, is just, you know, a tiny drama compared to the full scope of possibilities.
>>EVA: And I think that only even becomes an issue if one — I want to say it right — the Doctrine of the Singularity of Christ from a Christian perspective for the most part has been formulated within a worldview that’s not dealing with emptiness philosophically. And so, even to talk about the substance of God, the divine substance, and to formulate a Doctrine of the Trinity in which the three persons are of one substance and three hypostases, or three individual realities, is so deeply steeped in Greek philosophical categories and often misunderstood across Greek and Latin worlds — which I understood at one time and have lost by now — the insistence on an absolute singularity within that philosophical context makes sense in a way that it doesn’t in a worldview of emptiness and countless worlds that are produced by projections, by perceptions within a Buddhist cosmology. So even in Buddhism, though, one couldn’t say it quite the way you did at the end, namely, “we’re so small in comparison,” because Buddhism both acknowledges the enormity of the number of worlds and the number of universes, the number of world systems and sentient beings, but insofar as we meditate upon that, it’s perfectly fine to let this practitioner be at the center of that entire mandala.
>>RICK: Yeah, yeah. And not only that but to attain a sort of a vastness within one’s own awareness that subsumes the enormity of the universe,
>>EVA: For sure, yeah. And so it’s not as if we have to relegate ourselves to a corner of the universe as quantum — or contemporary astrophysics sometimes likes to right to point out how small we are and how insignificant we are, and in a Buddhist cosmology, as opposed to the picture of the universe that scientific astrophysics has painted — which we also know is relative to the way that we take the measurements and the way that we posit the questions — Buddhism is perfectly fine with every world system being at the center at the time that you’re focusing from that perspective. So we don’t have to relegate ourselves to a corner. No, as long as we’re here, this is the center. When we’re in another world, that’s the center.
>>RICK: Yeah. I’m cool with that.
>>EVA: And so then I think that’s why I want to say in that sense, they’re not as far apart — I mean, Buddhist worldview, where Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment is a singularity. You know, Buddhism on this planet in the eras that we’re aware of right now have been able to point — focus single-pointedly on the enlightenment of Shakyamuni under the Bodhi tree, and it’s okay. And they say he is the fourth of a thousand Buddhas, but really, he’s the one we’re going to focus on for now because that’s the Dharma that’s effective for us.
>>RICK: No, that’s — I’m perfectly fine with that. Yeah. Yeah, I guess what I was trying to say there was not to belittle the greatness of the sages who have walked the earth or of — or anything like that, but just because they’re the ones that are significant for us; they’re the ones we can relate to and learn from. And they’re the ones who can help us rise to the status of — to use the Sanskrit word Brahman, which is said to, you know, be the eater of everything, to contain the universe within it like a speck. But we just don’t want to get too Earth-centric in terms of the significance of our particular planet as compared to all the other worlds. I mean, somebody on some other planet in the Andromeda Galaxy could be talking the same way we are and saying, aren’t we special; we just have the greatest, you know, saints that have ever walked the —
>>RICK: — blob that we call this planet?
>>EVA: Except it’s not a blob to them. It’s an utterly elaborated complex world.
>>RICK: Yeah. So I’m just trying to be kind of universal in my perspective, and there’s a certain humility, I think, that, you know, just as countries, people, become so proud of their country, and as opposed to other countries, and we don’t want to do that even with our planet, given the magnitude of the universe.
>>EVA: Yeah, I’m totally with you there.
>>RICK: Yeah. A bunch of questions came in, and let me ask them, because we’ve already gone to two hours, but I don’t want to cut you short, and I love talking to you. Let me ask them, and then in the course of your answering them — and we’ll have to be somewhat concise in answering them — but in the course of your doing that, perhaps you can weave in anything that you feel we should have talked about and didn’t — and I even have plenty of things in my notes that we didn’t talk about — but weave in anything that you really want to be sure to cover. Okay, so here’s one from — and we’ll jump around a bit. This won’t segue at all from what we’ve just been discussing. But here’s one from Adam Buicke in Cork, Ireland. He wonders, is there any way to assess the safety of a particular technique? Is a teacher –? Yeah, this not written right. Is a teacher — or hurting yourself the only way to find out? I think what he means is, could you just try something, and if you end up hurt, that’s the only way you could have found out that it was actually going to be dangerous, and probably you shouldn’t have pursued it?
>>EVA: So this is an important question, and it’s one for all of us, especially in our contemporary world where we have so many choices. We have so many options, in a way, that people in traditional societies didn’t have. Oftentimes there was pretty much just one faith tradition, and I mean, I think of Tibet, and your choices were, stay a nomad or go to Lhasa and become a monk or go to the nearest monastery and become a monk or a nun. And it wasn’t a matter of I have to research all the religions of the world before I even decide which one I want to follow, much less find a teacher. So it’s overwhelming to us. And I’ve sometimes reflected on how it slows us down oftentimes in just going wholeheartedly into maturing along a singular spiritual path because we feel obligated to look around.
But if one — and as I say, it’s the case, for so many people and probably the majority of people even listening to this interview — has taken responsibility for, well, I want to follow a spiritual path, and I need to find out which one and how, and I need guides; we recognize we need guides. But how do we know when they’re qualified, or when they’re teaching an authentic lineage of teachings? So this is where reading can be extremely valuable for a long time. We have the kind of literature available, books much better than Internet, I’d say at this point for spiritual teaching. There’s too much on the Internet, and it’s too easy to just get a glib answer or a tight — a Wikipedia-style answer and think now I understand. And so let — allowing oneself to be drawn to books, really taking them in, being in the meditative state of mind it even takes to read a book as opposed to reading on a screen. And I think we know instinctively when a practice, if I just try it now, is not going to hurt me, like what I described earlier, of sitting and settling body, speech, and mind. I think we all know, that’s not going to hurt me. I can be utterly at peace and present with myself. I’m not doing anything weird to myself. Now, when one is doing that practice 15 hours a day for months on end, some quite intense and frightening experiences could arise, but that’s not how we start. And one would have to have a guide and lots of good training about many other things to know how to deal with those experiences, so that they, as it’s called, “release themselves.”
But to begin with, there’s a gradual process, like testing the waters. I’m thinking of the sticking one’s toe in the water and just testing the temperature and saying, is this helping? And actually one quite — set of criteria that Lama Alan Wallace often cites for testing a qualified teacher — but it’s closely related to a qualified practice — is through one’s own means of research. And there are many ways to find out about a teacher — primarily listening to their teachings, seeing how they resonate with you. But are they an authentic carrier of their lineage? And as you can tell, I have deep reverence for lineages. And there’s a phrase in Tibetan, rang so — you made it up yourself. And that’s a very derogatory term in Tibetan, because nobody should be making anything up by themselves. If it’s true, it’s been discovered before. And so we can find a lineage that resonates even with our own discoveries of truth, say, oh, oh, yeah, this resonates; now I want to learn more from the masters of the past who have a stable experience of this that maybe I’ve had a glimpse of. So finding a tradition that resonates with our own instincts, with our own inclinations. And then if there’s a particular teacher within that tradition, you keep testing with, and again, specifically, not comparing apples to oranges, even within Buddhism or within Christianity, within Judaism, but find a lineage and then say, is this teacher an authentic transmitter of this lineage? And then, according to what we can perceive, which is limited, and we can’t know someone else’s mind, is this person’s behavior in accordance with the teachings that they teach? Do they walk their talk? I mean, it’s as simple as that. And without, I mean, there’s a kind of doubt that can just crush anybody, and that’s essentially projecting negative assumptions onto someone, and we’re all good at that. Unfortunately, our contemporary world of media and politics, and so on, has made us very good at creating negative projections. So it’s best in a spiritual context to bring one’s best projections, one’s best benefit of the doubt, to a teacher, but with discernment, and with awareness and watching, how if one goes to a retreat in person, how do they relate to students? How do they behave? What do you feel coming through their descriptions of their own practice? And so on. So it’s, are they an authentic transmitter of the lineage? Is there anything you see them doing that is overtly not in accordance with the teachings? That’s, of course, when it has to be, you know, giant red flags. If this behavior is not in accord with the Dharma that that person is meant to represent, then you can’t trust them as an authentic teacher of that lineage.
But then finally, those two are in place, and the person’s behavior does seem to be in accord; there’s nothing that’s clearly not in accord with Dharma. Then, if you put those teachings into practice, do they benefit you? And that’s what I’m saying, back to the sticking the toe in the water, if it’s too hot, get out. If it’s too cold, get out. But if it’s helping, if you can see, especially in terms of our states of mind, when it comes to spirituality, states of mind that are becoming more peaceful, more balanced, more compassionate, more loving, more forgiving, more discerning. So sometimes, authentic Dharma — and I use this word very broadly now, in terms of spiritual teachings across many traditions — authentic Dharma will not always make us feel better. That’s got to be clear from the beginning; you’re not always going to feel better just because you’re practicing. It’s digging up the dirt. We’re dredging the pond of our minds.
>>RICK: Yeah, at least not initially, it won’t.
>>EVA: Not initially. Yeah. So there are going to be things that are difficult, but as long as we can see, oh, I am now having a view of something in myself that is difficult that I needed to deal with, and I now have a tool to deal with it, then we can see the practice benefiting, especially in how we relate to others. Do I see myself being kinder? Do I see myself being able to stop a mental affliction in the middle of an argument and get out of the argument by not precipitating the conflict? So those are signs of benefit. And then, yeah, so testing, testing, and then the more one practices, the more one has that inner discernment and a clearer view of one’s own heart.
>>RICK: On this point of choosing a teacher, and you were mentioning that, you know, there are certain traditional qualifications that a teacher should have. You know, these days, there have been so many examples of teachers who were alcoholics or sexual abusers, or, you know, just real scoundrels in various ways. And often their ability — their behavior is excused as “crazy wisdom,” and there’s supposed to be some kind of traditional justification for such behavior. Do you agree with that at all?
>>EVA: I remember one of the first teachings I ever attended with Alan Wallace, he asked the question, and I think I might have been the only person in the group who understood Tibetan at the time. And so he asked me, is there even a word in Tibetan for “crazy wisdom?” I can’t think of one. I have never seen such a term. Now, there’s nyunba, which means “a crazy person,” and there are examples where that madness was displayed by very high yogis. But the phrase “crazy wisdom” was coined in English.
>>RICK: And it kind of seems like an alibi to me. I don’t know if you know Timothy Conway, but he sent me this whole thing one time about how — and he’s a scholar and a researcher, and all, and he said it was just a literary trope that was invented at a certain point, but that there are actually, you know, I mean, there have been some traditional masters like, what, Marpa and his relationship with Milarepa, who are very strict, but this whole attitude of “anything goes in the name of crazy wisdom” was definitely not part of any legitimate tradition.
>>EVA: No, and so the measure is that the masters of the past, who reached a very high degree of realization and actually relating to what we were saying earlier about the prāṇas moving in the channels, as the prāṇas are gathering and entering the central channel more and more frequently, they’re dissolving there — the meditator is in samādhi for hours and hours at a time, and then they come out — if there’s an unconventional display of behavior, like — I’m going to mess up the example, so I’ll let it be — but it’s — there are lots of examples of the mahāsiddhas who would make a display of some kind of killing, but then they could bring the being back to life. They could bring the fish back to life; they could bring the carcass back to life. The unconventional behavior is accompanied by a very visible display of a miraculous power. And if it’s not, then it should never have been done in the first place. And what I think has been so radically dangerous in our contemporary world and the spread — the very rapid spread of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in particular, but also other — many other traditions from India, as well, the too — unfortunately, a naive audience of non-Tibetan, non-Indian listeners who are fascinated by the teachings, by the Dharma, attracted by these stories of old, think, oh, I want to see a teacher who can do that. And yet, it’s all too easy for there to be a display of unconventional, sometimes harmful behavior. And then when it comes to, well show the siddhi — and siddhi is a word for a miraculous power — show the miraculous power — oh, no, that has to be kept secret.
>>EVA: And His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that we are in an age now that if people have miraculous powers, they actually do need to show them, because that —
>>RICK: Yeah, “put up or shut up” sort of thing.
>>EVA: — Yeah, because the old humility has its place for sure in most circumstances, and humility, around realization, humility around practices is all very good — important. But if people — well, there’s another reason. If people are actually able to attain miraculous powers, and “miraculous” is not quite the right word, because it doesn’t mean miracle necessarily, in the old sense of miracle, but ability to work with the elements in ways that have no scientific explanation — I’ll put it that way — according to our current understanding of science, the kind of change in worldview that it could bring about if people who have those powers actually show them would — could bring so much benefit.
>>EVA: But as long as there are very few people in our world who actually have such capacities, for lots and lots of people to be claiming they do and not be able to show it only vitiates the whole tradition because it implies, oh, well, all that was made up anyway because nobody can do that anymore, or nobody can do it anyway. So that’s a — maybe I said too much. But basically —
>>RICK: Well, it’s okay. It’s a little bit of a different topic because there was a whole thing about unethical teachers, and, but this is a whole other interesting thing. I mean, it would really blow some minds if people could levitate, and it could be scientifically measured, and physics would have to scramble to explain how such a thing could be, you know, because it violates our understanding of the laws of nature. So there’s that whole topic, and then, like, the thing you said about a naive audience, I think, is important because a lot of people, they’ll sit there, and the teacher’s doing strange things, and they’ll think, yeah, but this guy is supposed to be enlightened, and I’m not. And so what do I know, and I better just keep going along with this, and then it gets weirder and weirder.
>>EVA: And this is where the whole — the very word “enlightened” has been used in too many contexts now, that it doesn’t mean the same thing and in — when different people use it. And I often find even within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition where there are very clear definitions of it in the literature, and that there’s hundreds of books now, well translated, so that’s clear, should be clear. And yet, and this comes in — it’s a whole other topic. It comes into the —
>>RICK: Yeah, there’s so many different —
>>EVA: — reification of a Vajrayāna teaching, where one views the teacher as a Buddha, but that is a practice on one’s own part of view. It’s not necessarily saying, my teacher went through this, this, this, this, and this stages of realization in this lifetime, and they can manifest them. Just because someone is qualified to grant a Vajrayāna empowerment, and therefore, one owes them the practice and the respect of seeing where the teacher is, the Buddha is present, that is not the same thing as saying, I know for a fact my teacher has attained śamatha, realized the emptiness of self-nature, gone through this, this, and this stages of Vajrayāna generation stage practice and is realized in this particular practice of inner fire — that doesn’t mean that, and that’s not what the tradition means one needs to think because it’s the primordial enlightenment of the Buddha who is present where the teacher is that one is taking refuge in. It’s not the realizations of this particular being.
>>RICK: Good. Well, I had a feeling that I was going to, at the end of this interview, feel like we’ve only scratched the surface because there’s so many things I could talk to you about, but perhaps we’ll do another one of these days. And we’ll just have to leave it at that and let people just regard this as a sampling of what you have to offer because there are some really great things that you can find online. And I’ll link to them in the show notes, where, you know, they can hear you expound, you, and also B. Alan Wallace expounds for many hours on many, many topics in great detail. And I think a lot of people would find that very enriching. But we’ll have to leave it at this for now. Is there anything you’d like to just say in conclusion?
>>EVA: Oh, I’m just so grateful for this opportunity and our delightful conversation, and I’m just imagining all the variety of people who may hear this conversation, and I guess my prayer really is that it only be that opening. Maybe some are listening who have a lot of background, and it’ll totally make sense, all the references that we’re making. For others, it may just be, like, cracking open a door to — there’s so much more to be learned here. And so I think I would emphasize on seeking out teachings that are at our level, teachings that are actually starting where we are, we’re at, and that’s what I was trying to describe before, certainly the meditations led by Alan Wallace. He teaches at many different levels, but it’s quite easy to almost step in at any place, and he’s always giving background, always giving context, always giving worldview. And so that, yeah, that’s my, I think, if I had to summarize all of it, it’s the self-honesty to discover where we are and to practice at the level we’re at. And as much as we can admire the tradition that describes the great realizations that are possible, and we cultivate the motivation, the aspiration, and the intention to follow a path towards such things, not to think we’re there before we are, and not to skip the necessary stages of early practice, thinking, oh, I just want to jump to the top of the ladder, which is a very contemporary tendency, and it doesn’t work in the spiritual path. You have to have the humility, the self-honesty, and the reverence for tradition, to study enough that we discover where we are, and then we can feel at home, and say, okay, now I know where I am, and I can benefit from it and not just feel frustrated.
>>RICK: Well, as Jesus said, seek and you shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened. And I’ve found, both in my own life and so many people I’ve gotten to know that when there’s a sincere intention, and you just take a step, then the next step follows, and the next step follows. And one thing leads to the next, and you start getting all kinds of support, and the right teachers and teachings and knowledge and everything comes along. But, you know, there just has to be that motivation. As some teachers, some have said, take one step toward me, and I’ll take a thousand steps toward you, you know? And this whole thing about not trying to leap to the conclusion of it all and assume. I always feel it’s safest to underestimate one’s attainment than overestimate it, you know, have the attitude of a beginner. It’s not going to hurt. Better safer than having the attitude of an adept when you’re not one.
>>EVA: For sure. For sure.
>>RICK: Good. Well, that — I don’t know if that’s a good note to end on or not. But that’s —
>>EVA: It is to me. I am satisfied. I —
>>RICK: — yeah. All right, well, we’ll be in touch. Even as we’ve been speaking, I’ve thought of a few things I’d like to send you that you might find interesting. And so thanks so much. I really enjoyed this whole time. I’ve gotten to know you over the past week listening to you and then spending these couple of hours with you. It’s really been a treat.
>>EVA: Wonderful. Thank you, Rick, and to your whole team that makes this possible, and just sending blessings to you and everyone listening.
>>RICK: Thanks so much, Eva. Really appreciate it. Thanks to those who’ve been listening or watching, and we’ll see you next week.