Running to India

Ngakpa Chogyam & Lama Yeshe Dorje

From this series: Wearing the Body of Vision

“You cannot extricate yourself from samsara by leaving society.  That simply does not work. This is why I don’t really approve of people giving up their jobs and running to hide in India.”
— pg 127 Wearing the Body of Visions – Ngakpa Chögyam

I understand what he is saying, but ironically, this is what he did. And, ironically, it is this image and his ‘credentials’ of studying in India & Nepal, that probably draw many of his students. The lure of the mysterious, the other, the different — it offers an identity, a rebellion, a hope of remaking oneself but only to find that such an effort is unsuccessful. I think that is his point. But the irony is huge for me.

Theravada Sources

This is simply a resource page where I will keep notes.

A Theravada Library: Access to Insight

(1) Henepola Gunaranta (1927-)

  •  Gunarantara: Mindfulness Made Simple … (free on-line)

(2) Bhikkhu Bodhi (Jeffrey Block, Ph.D) (1944 -):

(3) Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1949 -) (Thai Forest Traditions)(Geoffry DeGraff):

(4) Jayarava

The Yidam Heat Shield

In “Wearing the Body of Visions” (pgs 94-95), Ngakpa Chögyam uses the challenges of space travel as an analogy to the  obstacles of meditation.  Space is likened to “emptiness” and Earth is likened to “form”.  He calls meditative skills “personal technology”  and in this analogy likens those skill to rocketship technology.
The first basic meditative objective is to cultivate emptiness — to reach outer space.  For this, the meditator can us the silent sitting of shi-né  [1] which uses the ability to not paying attention to arising thoughts so as to learn to cultivate emptiness and thus leaving  behind form/earth.  But since form inevitably arises from emptiness, and we must return to earth (uncross our legs and carry on our daily life), we forget to benefit of emptiness as soon as we stand up from our sitting.   Ngakpa Chögyam tells us that Tantra offers a personal technology from their vast toolkit to assist the mind to stop habitually grasping at reference points (Earth) when emerging from emptiness (Space).  He likens this technology to the heat shield on a rocketship that re-enters the atmosphere which is needed to stop the destruction of the vehicle.  That heat shield is the Yidam [2] — and the practice of Wearing the Body of Visions.


  • The yidam heatshield displayed in my rocketship illustration is Seng-gé Dradog .
  • HT to the artist Nathan Scheck who gave me permission to use his sketch of the turtle riding into space for my illustration.

Tibetan Terms:

  1. shi-né :Tibetan: ཞི་གནས་  (rigpa wiki) (wiki)
    transliteration = zhi gnas (Wylie)
    transcription = shyné, shi-né, zhiné(THL)
    translations: calm abiding (Hopkins), śamatha (Sanskrit), calming down, quietude; appeasing; serenityzhi (shi) = pacify; calm down;
    gnas (né) = abide, dwell, rest
  2. yidam:  Tibetan. ཡི་དམ་ (rigpa wiki)
    Transliteration: yidam
    Transcription: yi dam (wylie)
    Translations: (THL)  Skt. iṣṭa devatā (wiki): cherished + godhead
    (1) (difficult to translate) high patron deity (Beyer), personal deity (Hopkins), tutelary deity
    (2) promise, vow, oathyi : [genetive particle] of; ‘;dam :  (1) promise, vow, oath,  (2) strict, firm, stable

Sleepy Meditation Marmot

Scientific Name:  arctomys himalayanus
Habitat:  Himalayas: 4,000 – 5,500 ft
Size: size of a matured house cat, >6kg

  • Tibetan snow pig
  • The Himalayan marmot
  • “Wild Dog”
  • “Yogi rat”:  Gomchen tsi-tsi (གོམས་ཆེན་ ཙི་ཙི)
    Gom=meditation + chen=great + tsitsi=rat

This fellow burrows near the snow line of the great Himalayan mountains and is not only one of the largest marmots in the world, but also one of the world’s highest living mammals.  As an adaptation to this harsh environment these critters hibernate a larger part of the year.

The “Tibetan snow pig” is not eaten because it gives off a very pungently offensive smell — but anyone would stink after months of sleeping in a cave.  Nonetheless, the resourceful Tibetans claim that its fat is a helpful ointment in treating rheumatism.

OK, why all this info? Well, Ngakpa Chögyam relates a meditation metaphor, told to him by his teacher, using this fat little fellow so I thought I’d tell you a bit more about him and offer another photo to illustrate the story.  Here is the story:

The story is that this creature goes into its little hole, but when it comes out again six months later — it’s still a marmot.  So, simply to go into isolation in your retreat cave means very little — even the marmot does that.  If you go into retreat according to the method of the marmot, then you come out again in a similar way.  The same is true of going into the empty state.  If there is no clarity in the empty state — if there is no presence — then little is gained apart from having a rest.  If you have merely blocked the arising of thought, then it’s very likely that you’ll fall into a state called ‘sleepy shi-ne’.  This is a condition in which there is absence of thought, but in which there is no presence of awareness.  It’s somewhat similar to going into a coma.  People who engage in this practice may find it very relaxing, but it serves no function in terms of how they cope with the phenomena of their existence.  As soon as they re-enter the world of form (that is to say: as soon as they leave their meditation and re-commence their everyday lives) they’re back in all their old reactions patterns — meditation and everyday life still remain separate.  In fact, you cannot actually say that this is meditation anymore: it has become simply a relaxation technique.  That isn’t so terrible, but there are easier ways to relax.
— Wearing the Body of Visions (pg 95)


Oxherding: Sutra vs Vajra

The diagram above is one of the traditional Nyingma classifications of the different Buddhisms — I added Bön for completeness.  You can see the more expanded Nyingma 9-path taxonomy here.  But in this diagram, the Buddhisms above the blue dotted-line are “vehicles” (or “approaches” or “paths”) while those named below the blue dotted-line are “schools” (or “sects”).  Schools tend to identify with one approach more than another thus vehicles and schools are sometime interchanged. In this scheme, the two large divisions here are Sutrayana and Vajrayana.  In this post, I hope to illustrate how the Sutra vehicle and the Vajra vehicle can have different interpretations of similar Buddhist images.

Though Buddhism comes in many flavors, often Buddhists will discuss Buddhism as if there really were only one real version of Buddhism either blurring the distinctions or intentionally ignoring the other traditions.  But the differences between the versions are important and should not be blurred or ignored.  The practices and thoughts in these traditions offer potentially very different consequences for practitioners.  And though each Buddhist path may use similar words for key doctrines and use similar images, they often interpret these in very different ways.

Below I use the famous Ten Ox Herding picture series to illustrate this phenomena.  Of course the picture series is not a Buddhist doctrine, but they have become popular in the West and it is not surprising that different schools use them to promote their version of Buddhism.  Nothing is wrong with that, of course, but I thought it would be interesting to show an example of two different interpretations to both illustrate the phenomena and to contrast these two different Buddhist paths.

The Ox Herder series (wiki) was first drawn by Chán master Kuòān Shīyuǎn in the 1100s AD to illustrate the Mahayana practitioner’s path to enlightenment.  But the picture series is so popular I can see why non-Mahayana folks would use it to discuss their flavor of Buddhism.

Below are interpretations from two different traditions.  The series on the left appears to me to resonate with the Sutrayana vehicle — you can see the source of the pictures here at the excellent site called Buddhanet — please visit it to learn much more.  Let me know if you agree that this is a Sutrayana interpretation?  Though I think a classic Sutrayana interpretation would end at the eighth picture — emptiness.  From my limited understanding, this story version seems to reinterpret the last two pics in a way consistent with Sutrayana.

In contrast, the series on the right is Vajrayana as colorfully interpreted by the late Vajra Master Chögyam Trungpa (I borrowed it from the excellent Shambhala site — please visit their site to learn much more).

The Buddhanet introduction to the Oxherder series is as follows:

The Ten Oxherding Pictures which relate back to a Ch’an master in the Sung dynasty China (1126-1279 AD), have spiritual roots in the early Buddhist texts. They provide useful imagery of an illusion to be negated before a seeker of truth can experience enlightenment. The ox symbolize the mind and the herder symbolizes the seeker. A graphic designer, Hor Tuck Loon has given these pictures a contemporary treatment.

Chögyam Trungpa’s introduction is here:

I have decided to include the ten oxherding pictures, a well-known Zen representation of training of the mind, so basic that it could be considered fundamental to all schools of Buddhism. A deeper way of looking at it is in terms of spiritual development from Shravakayana to Maha Ati. In the Tibetan tradition there is an analogy of elephant herding but it refers largely only to the practice of shamatha. The symbolism does not go beyond the riding of the elephant. In the oxherding pictures the evolutionary process of taming the bull is very close to the Vajrayana view of the transmutation of energy. Particularly returning to the world as the expression of the compassion of the Nirmanakaya shows that the final realization of Zen automatically leads to the wisdom of Maha Ati.
— Chögyam Trungpa

I hope you enjoy comparing and contrasting these two interpretations. The web has dozens of other Oxherder interpretations and drawings. I thought you’d enjoy these two. Let me know your thoughts.

1. Seeking the Ox

The herder first embarking on a spiritual journey is unaware that the true nature of the mind cannot be found by maintaining a dualistic view of the world.  The result is confusion and disillusionment.

1. The Search for the Bull

The inspiration for this first step, which is searching for the bull, is feeling that things are not wholesome, something is lacking. That feeling of loss produces pain. You are looking for whatever it is that will make the situation right. You discover that ego’s attempt to create an ideal environment is unsatisfactory.

2 Finding the Tracks

Though the ox is not seen or found, the presence of tracks increases the herder’s confidence that it exists.  The tracks represent phenomena and the erratic nature of the mind.

2 Discovering the Footprints

By understanding the origin you find the possibility of transcending this pain. This is the perception of the Four Noble Truths. You see that pain results from the conflicts created by ego and discover the footprints of the bull, which are the heavy marks of ego in all play of events. You are inspired by unmistakable and logical conclusions rather than by blind faith. This corresponds to the Shravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana paths.

3 First Glimpse of the Ox

The path to enlightenment has been glimpsed but much practice is needed to keep it in ful view.  Transcendence of the subject and the object is now known by direct experience.  Past thought patterns become painfully apparent.

3 Perceiving the Bull

You are startled at perceiving the bull and then, because there is no longer any mystery, you wonder if it is really there; you perceive its insubstantial quality. When you begin to accept this perception of non-duality, you relax, because you no longer have to defend the existence of your ego. Then you can afford to be open and generous. You begin to see another way of dealing with your projections and that is joy in itself, the first spiritual level of the attainment of the Bodhisattva.

4. Catching the Ox

The herder has caught the ox but finds it hard to tame.  The mind wanders and gets uptight when the seeker does not have expert control over it.

4. Catching the Bull

Seeing a glimpse of the bull, you find that generosity and discipline are not enough in dealing with your projections, because you have yet to completely transcend aggression. You have to acknowledge the precision of skilful means and the simplicity of seeing things as they are, as connected to fully developed compassion. The subjugation of aggression cannot be exercised in a dualistic framework – complete commitment into the compassionate path of the Bodhisattva is required, which is the development of patience and energy.

5. Taming the Ox

Advanced practice makes the herder more at ease with his or her true nature.  The ox though still unruly, puts up no resistance to the persevering herder.  Consciousness thus goes beyond the ordinary thinking mind.

5. Taming the Bull

Once caught, the taming of the bull is achieved by the precision of meditative panoramic awareness and the sharp whip of transcendent knowledge. The Bodhisattva has accomplished the transcendent acts (paramitas) – not dwelling on anything.

6. Riding the Ox Home

The struggle is over. The ox and the herder move in one direction effortlessly but the illusion of the subject and the object still persist.

6. Riding the Bull Home

There is no longer any question of search. The bull (mind) finally obeys the master and becomes creative activity. This is the breakthrough to the state of enlightenment – the Vajra-like samadhi of the Eleventh Bhumi. With the unfolding of the experience of Mahamudra, the luminosity and colour of the mandala become the music which leads the bull home.

7. Ox Forgotten, Self Alone

The subject and the object now become one.  Duality is transcended but practice continues.  The seeker having learnt to let go of everything no longer has worldly attachments.

7. The Bull Transcended

Even that joy and colour becomes irrelevant. The Mahamudra mandala of symbols and energies dissolves into Maha Ati through the total absence of the idea of experience. There is no more bull. The crazy wisdom has become more and more apparent and you totally abandon the ambition to manipulate.

8. Both Ox and Self Forgoten

The illusion of reality being separate from the mind is shattered.  Enlightenment as an unconditioned state of mind is experienced.  The mind has escaped from the trap of opinions and views.  Drawing a picture would be a contradiction of ‘no thing’.

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

This is the absence of both striving and non-striving. It is the naked image of the primordial Buddha principle. This entrance into the Dharmakaya is the perfection of non-watching – there is no more criteria and the understanding of Maha Ati as the last stage is completely transcended.

9. Returning to the Source

The search for enlightenment has come full circle.  The world goes on regardless of what changes have occurred. It is the nature of all phenomena.

9. Reaching the Source

Since there is already such space and openness and the total absence of fear, the play of the wisdoms is a natural process. The source of energy which need not be sought is there; it is that you are rich rather than being enriched by something else. Because there is basic warmth as well as basic space, the Buddha activity of compassion is alive and so all communication is creative. It is the source in the sense of being an inexhaustible treasury of Buddha activity. This is, then, the Sambhogakaya.

10. Returning to Help Sentient Beings

The enlightened being might be anybody who has renounced the world to help others towards the path.  Selfless service becomes the hallmark of wisdom.

10. In the World

Nirmanakaya is the fully awakened state of being in the world. Its action is like the moon reflecting in a hundred bowls of water. The moon has no desire to reflect, but that is its nature. This state is dealing with the earth with ultimate simplicity, transcending following the example of anyone. It is the state of “total flop” or “old dog”. You destroy whatever needs to be destroyed, you subdue whatever needs to to subdued, and you care for whatever needs your care.

Magic Milarépa: Passing through Solids

Here is a story from the Christian Bible concerning Jesus after his reported resurrection:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
— John 20:19 (NIV)

Here is a story related by Ngakpa Chögyam concerning Milarépa (1000 AD), a Buddhist saint:

There is a story of Jétsun Milarépa, the great yogi poet of Tibet, in which he’s challenged to a debate by some ostensibly great scholar.  As it’s the scholar who has challenged Milarépa, he asks Milarépa to choose a subject.  Milarépa replies that the scholar can choose whatever area he wishes — the subject is irrelevant. Milarépa has no topic at which he ‘excels’ – his knowledge has become unified with space; and, as such, there is no meaning at all in choosing a subject of debate.  The scholar decides that he will easily defeat Milarépa through the use of Madhyamika philosophy.  This is the philosophy which proves the empty nature of all phenomena and the empty nature of ‘self’.  The scholar launches in by asking: “Does this rock have solidity?” (Scholars are prone to ask such questions, imagining that these issues are highly consequential.)  The scholar expects Milarépa to be ignorant of the logical analysis that pertains to such questions.  He is therefore surprised and not a little put out when Melarépa answers: “No.”  Undeterred, the scholar says: “But this is nonsense!  See for yourself!”  and taps the rock with his staff to prove his case.  Milarépa simply passes his hand through the rock as if it were not there, and says: “See no reason to believe in the existence of this rock.”  The scholar is quite taken aback by Milarépa’s powers, but his arrogance gets the better of him and he concludes that this must be some kind of trickery on Milarépa part.  So the scholar then waves his hand through the air, asking: “Does this space have solidity?”  Milarépa replies: “Yes”, and proceeds to beat on the air so loudly with the scholar”s stick, that the man has to cover his ears for the din.  At this point the scholar realises that he has made some sort of error.  He sees that he was rather badly mistaken in assuming he could best Milarépa in an intellectual debate.  He is all the more impressed when Milarépa shows no sign at all of being jubilant about his own victory.
— “Wearing the Body of Vision” (pg 77)

Did Jesus walk through walls?  Did Milarépa pass his hand through a rock?  Was the scholar really arrogant to doubt a miracle?  Miraculous stories of ghosts and saints passing through solid objects abound in religious and folk lore around the world – Africa, South America, Asia, Europe…  We have stories of flying, producing food out of thin air, disappearing and healing.  All these, and more, are common in miracle stories.

But what are we to do with magic?  How should we think of it?  Unfortunately, magic has never been verified by careful recordings to allow strong empirical evidence.   Sure, we have lots of stories and anecdotes, but no significant, weighty evidence.  Yet everyone loves magic stories.  What should we do with this universal character of magic?

I, personally, am a strange mix of having a pragmatic methodological naturalist mental temperament while having a mystical emotional temperament (see some of my unusual experiences here) thus, I find magic and miracles enticing.  But there is good reason to remain skeptical of magic.  But magic also offers us much or it wouldn’t remain around.  Below is a Pro/Con list of the value of magic.  Can you think of others?


  • It is inescapable and so we should use it
  • It can be fun, inspiring, enriching
  • It empowers imagination
  • It allows us work on parts of the mind otherwise difficult to reach
  • It can be used as a teaching tool.  The miraculous aspect of the story helps us remember the main point — even if the miracle part is fictional/exaggerated.


  • It can be used to deceive, manipulate
  • It can give false hope
  • It can distract from correct, life saving options
  • It can make a person change their life to depend on lies which can end in great disappointment or disaster
  • It is tied with powerful emotions which are not open to dialogue or testing

So, what is the person who doesn’t believe in magic and miracles to do with these stories if they are from a tradition they value?  He is a list of options off the top of my head:

  1. Reinterpret the stories metaphorically.  Understand that they where rhetorical ploys to get deeper messages across.
  2. Assume that they are false but used to inspire people in a primitive culture where magic was (is) still needed credential to higher aims.
  3. Dismiss any teaching that contains them as pure nonsense.
  4. Use them in a lightly held way to work with one’s own mind while not buying into magic as a material force in the world.
  5. Remain “open minded” and still use the images for inspiration and working on their mind and allow that they still could happen.
People take various positions on these issues.  My experience has shown me that the positions people take depend largely on their temperament, their investment in the magical culture in which they are immersed and the charismatic influence of the people they trust.

Script Families & Tibetan

The Tibetan script has always been one of my favorite scripts – a bold balance of curved and straight lines. In my graduate studies I worked Arabic (Urdu) and Devanagri (Hindi) scripts and as I dabble with Tibetan now, it is tempting to see the Devanagri. But actually the Tibetan script doesn’t look much like Devanagri — instead, I found out– Tibetan and Devanagri have a common ancestor Brahmi.  Below are the script families to help see those relations.  Understand that language families and script families are very different things. Turkish now uses a Roman script but it use to use Arabic. Japanese uses Chinese characters but it is not at all related to Chinese.

In another post I hope to compare Tibetan, Devanagri and Brahmi scripts to show their similarities and contrasts.

Five-Fold Schemes

Wearing the Body of Visions” is about using visionary realities to transform ourselves.  On pgs 78-79 Ngakpa Chögyam describes the five-fold schemes used as visionary realities in Tantra.  NC also tells us that “The five-fold nature of this Tantric teaching is reflected all levels of Buddhism.”

This diagram illustrates the different 5-fold elements that NC associates within the three different Buddhist Yānas (paths) :

  • Sūtra Yāna –> 5 Skanda
  • Outer Tantra –>  5 Buddha Families
  • Inner Tantra –> 5 Pawo & Khandro
  • Dzogchen Yāna –> The Five Elements
I will continue to improve this chart as I better understand the pairings.  “Khandro” means dakini and dakini’s are named after their colors in the Aro traditions.  See David’s excellent comments below.


Tulku (tibetan)

A “Tulku” is the title given to a Lama who is recognized as the incarnation of a previous Lama.  The word is sometimes written “Trül-ku” or transliterated as “sprul sku”.  Using the Tibetan Syllable post, below you can see why various spellings exist.  I will take notes on the meaning in another post.

The Tibetan Syllable

This diagram, while busy, captures all the key basic points needed to understand basic Tibetan orthography.  Visual frameworks help me to hold on to knowledge and I hope it helps someone else as they begin trying to understand classical Tibetan.

The top half of the diagram shows the basic syllable structure of stacked letters.  Note that though prefixed letters are silent, the exceptions are listed below.  The bottom diagram illustrates sub and superfixed letters and how subfixed letters change the pronunciation of the root letter.  Superfixed letters are silent.

Tantra Ligatures

Below your will see the many ligatures used to make the word “Tantra”.  In another post I will write more about the meaning of the word “Tantra”.

One-Taste: The Dance of Emptiness and Form

Emptiness and Form, according to Aro’s teachings, can simply be thought of as contrasting characteristics of existence.   David Chapman skillfully re-names Emptiness and Form as Nebulosity and Pattern.    For me the classic Taoist Ying-Yang symbol is helpful in understanding these characteristics.  Looking at the qualities, it can be seen that the mind naturally rests in the “form” mode and thus Emptiness must be cultured, valued and nourished to be deeply understood.    Below the diagram are quotes of Ngakpa Chögyam from Chapter 1 of his “Wearing the Body of Visions“.

  • ‘Emptiness’ and ‘form’ are the most important terms in attempting to establish a relationship with the structural symbolic aspects of Tantra, both as theory and practice.
  • Unless emptiness and form become the experiential terms with which we interpret our life-event, the ritual and symbolic aspects of Tantra could simply become a way of passing time in a florid spiritual ambience.
  • Emptiness is a quality of existence, just as form is a quality of non-existence.
  • Emptiness is the quality of reality that gives rise to form.  Form can only exist because of emptiness; which is why emptiness is often referred to as ‘the Great Mother’.  It is called ‘the womb of potentiality’.  It is called ‘the Mother of the Buddhas’.  Without this life-generating quality of emptiness, form remains our sole reference of security.  But it is impossible to relate to form unless we also relate to emptiness, because emptiness and form are non-dual;  they are aspects of each other.  We only fear emptiness because we image it to be an experience in which form is lost and we fear that form could be lost forever.
  • Emptiness is bound to reflect form.  This endless self-reflection is the limitless dance of Tantra.
  • This requires that we allow every polarity to exist within us — deliberately entertaining experiential and existential paradox.  So, we need: both wariness and unwariness; caution and folly; credultity and skepticism.  We need both craziness and absolute sanity.  Unless we’re prepared to feel the texture of these erratically alternating states — the energy of Tantra will remain incomprehensible to us.
At a basic level, I see exercise of understanding the emptiness-form issue as being about understanding and participating with both sides of our brains — not living isolated primarily in one hemisphere.  (Of course it is not as simple as hemispheres, but you get my neuro analogy).  But NC is saying more than this, he says both states can be tasted simultaneously and enrich the dance.  (pg39)  He suggests that behind apparent duality  of emptiness and form there is One-Taste of both simultaneously.  Thus, for example, even pleasure and pain have a shared taste when experienced from this perspective.
Understanding these principles is one thing.  Experiencing emptiness is another.  Freely and often experiencing emptiness is yet another.  Finally tasting the non-duality of both form and emptiness is yet another.  I think I have had clear experience of all of these such that NC’s writings ring very true to me.  But I have had neither consistency, frequency or depth to have had them effect me too deeply.   Most my encounters have been by blind luck.

Disenchantment with Emptiness

Kakuan, a 12th century Chan master, is famous for his 10 ox-herding pictures to illustrate the path to enlightenment. The eighth picture (to the right) always seemed to me to represent “emptiness” and part of the path needed to gain enlightenment. Sure, the series went on to the 10th picture with the boy back in the market (end of post), but I always felt that secretly, the Buddhists I met were in love with the empty circle.  In fact, it is this picture you see all over the web when Buddhism is discussed, I rarely see the market picture.

“Emptiness” was something I heard chanted and lectured in Zen Buddhism. It never really resonated with me. It sounded idealized. It sounded sought after. It often almost sounded personified and deified. All that, and surrounded with all-knowing smiles and cute paradoxes. Aesthetically, it repulsed me.

My meditations were simple: watching how the mind jumped around, how thoughts came on their own, how moods, visions and feelings fluxed like thoughts. Yoga had taught me to relax the body and made these observations easier. Buddhism agreed with my insight of no substantial self and the power of self-deception. But the “Emptiness” rhetoric never did anything for me.

I thought, “Well, emptiness is what is left when I am not identifying with my grasping of thoughts.” But again, that seemed like I was trying to distill something out of reality and call it “emptiness” which again was mistaken. For me, the Zen I knew seemed enamored with paradoxes for their own sake and being anti-philosophy was not helpful to my temperament or understanding. Perhaps it was my misunderstanding, but I ignored “emptiness” (the word) and just continued my sittings.

Years later, the Aro explanation or use of the word “Emptiness” now rings very true for me and allows me to use this word in very different ways. My next post explores the Aro explanation.

Linguistics & Buddhism

Below is an annotated list of language posts on this site:

Learning Tibetan Script

Dissecting Tibetan Words/Phrases

  • Tulku: dissecting a Tibetan word’s script

The Tibetan Language, general

Orthography, general

Dance, Theatre & Games

One of the reason I enjoy reading Ngakpa Chögyam (NC) is that I resonate with many of the images he uses.  In this post I link to several Triangulation posts which perhaps illustrate that resonance — that yuan.

In chapter 1, “Limitless Dance”, NC describes Tantra  as a “florid, fecund and fiery dance” (pg 29).  The Dance reminded me of one of the gods on my Atheist altar , Shiva — the Lord of the Dance.

If I have a non-Buddhist, inner theist self, he would look toward a monkey-god deity like Shiva.   In his ecstatic dancer form (Nataraja), Shiva is oblivious to the details of the world.  His dance both indiscriminately creates (Lasya) and destroys (Tandava) — to me it declares a beautiful roadkill theology.   Yes, ‘beautiful’ because it is what is!   I see specialness in the mundane and find glory in insignificance.  Saying life is a game, is a positive statement for me.

Having done acting when I lived in Japan, I thoroughly enjoyed a theatre analogy NC made on page 33 where he writes:

The theatre provides a form for the formlessness of not knowing what’s going to happen next — but life doesn’t seem to provide that.  The theatre and the theatrical performances that occur can be understood as the structural back-drop for uncertainty [emptiness].  You don’t mind the uncertainty because you have the definition of being a spectator — of being part of an audience.  But who are you when the theatre is the entire context in which you find yourself? …  What happens is: you experience emptiness.

Though I meditated and was sympathetic to much of Buddhist thought, before reading David Chapman’s site “Approaching Aro” and then NC’s writings, the Buddhist theological notion of “Emptiness”  was not inviting.   In his theatre analogy, NC tells us that tantra is the ability to experience emptiness as exhilarating and to know its inseparable (non-duality) with “Form”.  These are not terms I would have used before, but when understood in the Aro sense, they resonate with what I understand with games, dance, theatre, insignificance and yuan — my  mind’s familiar tromping ground.

My other posts on::  “Weaving the Body of Visions” by Ngakpa Chögyam.

Wearing the Body of Visions

This is an annotated index of my posts related to or inspired by Ngakpa Chögyam’s fine book “Wearing the Body of Visions” (1995).  My hope is that perhaps even one person may find these notes useful. But even if not, organizing and writing these notes deepens my understanding.  All mistakes are mine, of course.  And corrections or questions are coveted!

Opening (preface)

  • The Aro Lineage: pg 1 starts with one of the many cool lineage images that delightful illustrate the book.  I made this diagram to help me keep all the players them straight.
  • The Middle Way: pg 9 discusses a useful Tantric  interpretation but there are others.
  • Yāna Classification: pg 10,16,17 start out right away assuming the reader understand the complex Nyingma classification system.  Here is a diagram to help.
  • Khandro-Pawo:  pg 11 briefly mentions this important theme.  I needed to visualize it and expand it.  It seems it will grow much more important.
1. Limitless Dance
  • Dance, Theatre and Games: pg 29, links to Triangulations showing my overlapping understandings with NC’s presentation and the notion of “dance” or “game”.
  • Mini-Deaths: pg 33, NC describes how “transitions” can be an everyday possibility to see emptiness.  His thoughts resonated exactly with my thoughts on my mini-death post over on Triangulations.
  • One Taste: The Dance of Emptiness and Form:  pg 34 the Aro explanation of emptiness. p34
  • Tantra Ligatures:  pg 34, see how “tantra” is written in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese.
2. Entering the Sphere of Energy
  • Tulku: pg 54 NC discusses the Trül-ku form and the footnote discusses the different spellings.  Here I show why there are different spellings.
3. Primal Iridescence
4. Envisioning
  • The Yidam Heat Shield : pgs 94-95,  A method to preserve meditations skills once you uncross your legs.
  • Sleeping Marmot Meditation:  pg 95,  Simply not following thoughts may not change you at all.
  • Running to India: pg 127, Rinpoche suggests that escaping to India is a mistake.  Is this ironic?
  • more coming …




My other posts on::  “Weaving the Body of Visions” by Ngakpa Chögyam.

The Aro Lineage

Aro is a fascinating Nyingma sect with Western non-monastic lamas.  Below is a diagram of their lineage story taken from  the Aro site.  Links to biographies and further pics provided below.

Links to details:


Yeshé Tsogyel

Khyungchen Aro Lingma

 A-yé Khandro

  • coming
 Aro Yeshé

 A-shé Khandro

  • coming
 Khandro Déchen

  • coming
Ngakpa Chgyam

  • coming

All mistakes are mine, of course.  Corrections are coveted.  I need visuals like this to help me remember and learn deeply.   I hope it helps a reader or two also.

The Middle Way

To call themselves a “Buddhist”, a Buddhist usually declares that they hold key Buddhist concepts such as “The Triple Gem” , “The “Middle Way”, “The Eight-fold path”, “Karma” and “Four Noble Truths”.  But each Buddhist sect give their own unique interpretation of these concepts, sometimes at such variety that the unity of Buddhism becomes rather blurry.

This post consists of my notes on one of these concepts: “The Middle Path“.  Below you will see that “The Middle Way” can be used in very different senses.

“Middle Path” or “Middle Way” are English translations of: Pali: majjhimā paṭipadā; Sanskrit: madhyamā-pratipad;
s. paṭipadā: 1. ‘Road’, ‘path’
sanskrit: magga = ‘path’
I am not sure of the difference here.

Tantric Middle Way: Ngakpa Chögyam (“Wearing the Body of Visions, p.9)

Tantra doesn’t exclude hedonism, but neither does it encourage it.  It is very much the ‘middle way’ that characterises all Buddhist vehicles.  This middle way should not be understood as some sort of spiritual or existential compromise.  It has nothing at all to do with adopting a centralised stance, in order to reach a dubious equanimity or suspect equality of experience.  Such equanimity would merely be a ‘cosmic’ flatness of affect; a spiritual anæsthetic; a lack-lustre quilted carpet-slipper philosophy for the sedate and sensible.  The ‘middle way’ might be better translated as: ‘the way that rejects all referential co-ordinates’ – ‘the way that doesn’t seek to locate itself in known or knowable territory’.  This is the way that doesn’t hold any kind of position or stance for establishing a fixed definition of being.  However; just as it doesn’t seek extremes, it doesn’t avoid them either.  It merely avoids attaching to them as ultimate definitions.  It avoids utilising experience of any kind as a means of concretely defining the nature of reality.  It doesn’t say: “I am here because that is there”; “I am now because I was then, and so I will be in the future“.  It doesn’t say: “I think therefore I am.”  In fact – it simply rejects all ‘therefores’.

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta Middle Way (Pali Scriptures quoting the Buddha):

“Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one gone forth (into the homeless life). What two? That which is this pursuit of sensual happiness in sense pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of the ordinary person, ignoble, not connected to the goal; and that which is this pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, not connected to the goal. Bhikkhus, without veering towards either of these two extremes, the One Attuned to Reality has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to higher knowledge, to full awakening, to Nibbāna.”

Kaccayanagotta Sutta:: “The Middle Teaching”  (majjhena dhamma: Pali later scriptures) Another version of the meaning.

“‘Everything exists’: That is one extreme. ‘Everything doesn’t exist’: That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle:

Mādhyamaka (wiki): (Sanskrit: माध्यमक, Mādhyamaka, Chinese: 中觀派; pinyin: Zhōngguān Pài; also known as Śunyavada) refers primarily to a Mahāyāna Buddhist school of Buddhist philosophy systematized by Nāgārjuna.  According to the Mādhyamikas, all phenomena are empty of “substance” or “essence” (Sanskrit: svabhāva), meaning that they have no intrinsic, independent reality.

Hindu Middle Way: The Bhagavad Gita (6th chapter)

This middle way notion exists also in Hinduism, it seems — from whence Buddhism emerged.

“Yoga is not for him who eats too much or does not eat at all, nor sleeps too much or does not sleep at all.”

And again

“But Yoga becomes the discipline for the destruction of sorrow for him who moderate in eating and recreation, moderate in work and sleep and walking.”

The Confucian Middle Way: 551 BC – 479 BC (wiki)

The Doctrine of the Mean (Chinese: 中庸; pinyin: zhōng yōng), is both a concept and one of the books of Confucian teachings.

The Golden Mean of Aristotle 384 BC – 322 BC (wiki)

The golden mean is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency.

The Dalai Lama’s “Middle Path” approach to China:  see  We can see how the word is used in political ways here.  People grab “sacred phrases” to make them their own.


Above is my attempted sketch of the stances as outlined by David Chapman on Meaningness.  On the bottom are the “confused stances” which are mixes of Eternalism vs. Nihilism  and of Monism vs. Dualism.  Note that Nihilistic Monism is a rare stance so that there are practically only the Big Three confused stances.  The center of the confused stances symbolizes those who are uncommitted to a particular fixed stance.  The only virtue of this uncommitted stance is that for some, this position allows one to more clearly see the “4th Option” of Meaningness — the “Complete Stance” which allows all these possibilities.

The “Complete Stance” is then seen to contain all possibilities without a fixed quality — it is thought of as a spacious stance (thus the dotted borders in contrast to the thick borders of the confused stances).  The “Confused Stances” are just locked-down, fixations on aspects of the “Complete Stance”.


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