Investigating the Rainbow Body
by Michael Sheehy

If we look across spiritual traditions, we find the human body is broadly envisioned to be a vessel that contains the essence of existence and transformation — a container, likened to clothes that are to be stripped off or a boat that is to be abandoned once one has reached the breaking shore at death. Similarly, there are modern philosophical and scientific models that conceive the body to exist separately from the mind, the kind of mind/body dualism that Gilbert Ryle described as a “ghost in the machine.”

Though we find practices of bodily abandonment and denigration throughout Indian spirituality, the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions that were received and developed in Tibet — due to the synthetic collaborations of Buddhism with the arts and sciences of medicine, astrology, alchemy, and physiology that occurred during the formative period of tantra during the seventh through ninth centuries — place an emphasis on the body as a locus of transformation. Similar to Daoist traditions of alchemical transformation, there are Vajrayana traditions that say that all tangible matter consists of congealed forms of the five elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. As described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead and illustrated in the murals of the Lukhang or so-called Secret Temple of the Fifth Dalai Lama in Lhasa, there are cosmogonies that suggest the elemental energies that make up the cosmos are undifferentiated from those that make up the human body, and as such the body is a holon, simultaneously the individual person and the cosmic whole.

In Dzogchen cosmology, the primordial space of the cosmos is envisioned as being utterly open and translucent. Due to the natural effortless play of the cosmos itself, movement ensues. With this initial gesture, however slight, the element of air stirs up wind that oscillates rapidly into fire; from fire emerges the liquidity of water, and from water the solidity of rock and earth are stabilised. With this gradual gravitational collapse into the elemental forces that comprise the cosmos, a concomitant spiralling reconfigures matter into worlds wherein embodied beings emergently form. As such, the body is conceived to be a part of the whole, seemingly fragmented from itself. Not unlike contemporary astrophysics, Vajrayana traditions view our bodies to be an evolutionary product of billions of years of bathing in bright light.

Describing the reversal of this gestation process, The Tibetan Book of the Dead details the dissolution of these five elements during the time of death. First the body becomes heavy and sags as the earth element dissolves, saliva and mucus are excreted as the water element dissolves, the eyes roll backward as the fire element dissolves, the breath becomes wheezy as the air element dissolves, and finally consciousness flashes and flickers with turbulent visions as the space element dissolves from the physical body.

According to Dzogchen tradition, under certain circumstances the cosmic evolutionary process of gravitational collapse into solidity can turn itself back into a swirling, highly radiating configuration. That is, there are Tibetan traditions that suggest that meditative technologies can intentionally reverse this process of collapse, thereby altering the gravitational field so the inherent radiance of these condensed elements blossom. When this happens, the five elements of the body transform into the five lights of the colour spectrum. The Tibetan name given to this fluorescence is jalu, literally translated as “rainbow body.”

Material bodies dissolving into light is the subject of Rainbow Body and Resurrection by Father Francis V. Tiso, a priest of the Diocese of Isernia–Venafro who holds a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism. Exploring the body as a vehicle of spiritual transformation, this book presents Father Tiso’s research on postmortem accounts of the rainbow body of Khenpo A Chö (1918–98) in eastern Tibet, historical background on Dzogchen and early Christianity, and a comparative discussion of the rainbow body and the mystical body of Christ.

Father Tiso introduces his work by acknowledging that because research on postmortem paranormal phenomena cannot be conducted in a laboratory, there are inherent tensions that exist in conducting scientific investigations while relying on the good word of faithful informants. Seeking to take the approach of a participant observer in the tradition of anthropology, Tiso’s chapter on Khenpo A Chö is largely a series of journal logs from fieldwork in eastern Tibet and India and transcripts from interviews with local eyewitnesses.

What is missing at the beginning of the book is an overview about rainbow body phenomena in Tibet. In addition to references to pre-modern episodes found in Tibetan literature, such as mentions of Padmasambhava’s consort Yeshe Tsogyal going rainbow, reports of rainbow bodies have been emerging from Tibet sporadically over the past century. Perhaps the best known among English-reading Buddhists is that of Yilungpa Sonam Namgyel, who went rainbow in 1952, as recounted by the late Chögyam Trungpa in his memoir, Born in Tibet. There is also the case of Changchub Dorje (1826–1961?), a medical doctor and leader of a Dzogchen community in the Nyarong region of eastern Tibet, about whom we have stories from his living disciples, including Lama Wangdor, and from Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s The Crystal and the Way of Light. Other well-known cases include: Nyala Pema Dudul (1816–1872), whose life story was written about by the great Nyingma master Mipham Gyatso (1846–1912); the Bonpo meditation master Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (1859-1935); Lingstsang Dzapa Tashi Odzer; and Khenchen Tsewang Rigzin (1883–1958). Also within the past few years there have been several reports such as those of Lama Achuk (1927–2011), Khenpo Tubten Sherab (1930–2015), and most recently, the mother of Lokgar Rinpoche. What is striking about many of these exceptional figures, including Changchub Dorje and Khenpo Tubten Sherab, is that they tended to be unflashy and nonchalant about their meditative accomplishments. In fact, there are numerous stories in Tibet of inconspicuous nomads and illiterate common folk who shocked their communities by going rainbow.

One particularly fascinating social dynamic that has emerged since the Cultural Revolution — and this has affected the reporting of numerous cases — is that the Chinese government has declared going rainbow to be illegal. In effect, because the phenomena so dramatically challenge the normative paradigm, there has essentially become a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about masters going rainbow in Tibet. For instance, Changchub Dorje’s shrunken bodily remains were hidden from authorities for years until the proper ceremonies could be openly performed.

So what exactly does rainbow body look like? According to these traditions, there are signs that indicate an adept has stabilised meditative realisation of the mind’s innate basic radiance. While alive, it is said that the bodies of these beings do not cast a shadow in either lamplight or sunlight; at death, signs include their physical bodies dramatically shrinking in size, and their corpses exuding fragrances and perfumes rather than the odours of decomposition. A common Tibetan metric for the shrunken corpse of a body gone rainbow is the “length of a forearm.” In the case of Khenpo A Chö, as Father Tiso notes, the local Chinese press reported that his body “shrank to the size of a bean on the eighth day and disappeared on the tenth day. What remain are hair and nails.” Other signs are the sudden blooming of exotic plants and flowers anytime of year and, of course, rainbows appearing in the sky.

These signs mark someone who has attained rainbow body, and some are said to have occurred in each of the cases mentioned above. However, there is also a special kind of rainbow body known as the great transference into rainbow body, or jalu powa chemo. This is the complete transference of the material body into radiance so that the only residue of the body is hair and fingernails. Great transference is a deathless state. Realised by Dzogchen meditation masters such as Garab Dorje and Padmasambhava, the great transference rainbow body is understood to be the actual enlightened qualities of these realised masters. Not unlike Christian saints, these qualities are understood to be continually available for beings to receive through the reception of light.

While it is tempting to draw parallels between the luminous bodies of Dzogchen meditation masters and saints, or even with the risen mystical body of Christ, Father Tiso goes one step further. Discussing the exchange of religious ideas along the Silk Route, and possible historical influences of Syriac Christianity and Manichaeism in the pre-Buddhist civilisation of Tibet, he asks if the first human teacher of Dzogchen, Garab Dorje, could have been a Christian master imported from the Middle East — or even the messiah himself.

The strength of Father Tiso’s book is its tremendous and ambitious breadth. He brings to the reader’s attention a broad spectrum of doctrinal and historical information not only about what he refers to as the “Church of the East” and possible doctrinal influences of Christian light mysticism on Tibetan religion but also about early Dzogchen practice. Discussing encounters of Christianity with Buddhism and Daoism, he cites little-known Christian mystics, including the Desert Fathers of Egypt, Evagrius, Abraham of Kashkar (ca 501–586), and John of Dalyatha (ca 690–786), all of whom he argues were critical figures in spreading the “religion of light.”

One example of this cross-fertilisation with which Father Tiso tantalises us is the Jesus Sutras, seventh-century Christian texts that were preserved among the caches of manuscripts discovered in the Central Asian cave complexes at Dunhuang. Thought to be have been produced by the Church of the East and Syro–Oriental Christian communities who travelled along the Silk Route, these texts remarkably borrow literary forms and devices employed in Buddhist sutra literature while echoing doctrinal claims of Christian theology in typical Buddhist parlance. For instance, similar in arrangement to many Mahayana Buddhist sutras, these texts present a question-and-answer dialogue about topics of spiritual self-cultivation, except instead of speaking with the Buddha, the interlocutor is the Messiah Christ.

Am I convinced that a Church of the East influenced Dzogchen in Tibet? Was Garab Dorje actually Jesus Christ? Did Christian light mysticism have a significant historical impact on the formation of yogic technologies that culminated in Tibetan expressions of rainbow body? These are certainly alluring questions. However, that’s not entirely the point. Father Tiso makes a compelling case by bringing his reader an intercultural, cross-historical, and inter religious discussion of the esoteric arts. To what extent there was bona fide synthesis among these meditative traditions from Egypt and Syria to China and Tibet is a discussion that warrants more attention and that this book propels forward. What’s most important, however, is that this work brings attention to the shared human experiment of contemplative transformation.

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Destroy anger and conceit, and be endowed with humility. Relinquish wrong livelihood, and be sustained by ethical livelihood.

— Atiśa




关于功德的最著名的一个故事是达摩初见梁武帝的对话:“祖泛重溟,凡三周寒暑,达与南海,实梁普通七年庚子岁,九月二十一日也。广州刺史萧昂,具礼迎供。表闻武帝,帝遣使斋诏迎请,以十月一日至金陵,帝问曰:‘朕即位以来造寺、写经、度僧不可胜计,有何功德?’ 祖曰:‘并无功德。’帝问曰:‘何以无功德?’祖曰:‘此但人天小果有漏之因,如影随形,虽有非实。’帝曰:‘如何是真功德?’祖曰:‘净智妙圆,体自空寂,如是功德,不以世求。’”崇信佛教的梁武帝见到达摩时就问自己造寺、写经、度僧的行为有什么功德。而达摩却认为是没有功德,因为这种行为只是人天小果有漏之因,虽然可以见到,却不是真实的。



“若修功德之人,心既不轻,常行普敬⋯⋯自性虚妄不实,即自无德,为无我自大,常轻一切故。善知 识,念念无间是功,心行平直是德。自修性是功,自修身是德。善知识,功德需自性内见,不是布施、供养之所求也,是以福德和功德别。”这里慧能对如何修功德进行了详细的解释。他认为,修功德之人应该内心很重 视功德,常怀敬畏普化之心。如果心里常常轻视别人,自我的观念不断,就是没有功德。而如果认为自己的本性是虚妄的、不真实的,这也是没有功德的,这就是为什么自我会盲目自大。每一个心念都不脱离自性是功,心行平直无碍是德。对自身的本性修养是功,对身体的修养是德。功德要从自性中去体现,而不是供养、布施等所求的。这就是福德和功德的区别。如果能看到自己的本性,不执著于心念,真实妙用,并能谦虚谨慎,符合礼节就是功德。不能轻视别人而自大自负,应该修身养性,珍视自身本性,心中做到刚正平直,离染脱念,就是真正的功德了。



What is wisdom? It is as explained in the perfection of supreme knowledge teachings: all phenomena are free from elaborations, and when the perceiving subject as well becomes equally free from elaborations, that is wisdom. In particular, the wisdom of the Buddha consists in the pacification of the elaborations and their habitual tendencies in relation to suchness. It is the inseparability of the expanse and wisdom. It is free from singularity and multiplicity, quality and qualified. It realises the non-duality of subjects and objects. In it all phenomena — saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, faults and qualities, and so on — are always undifferentiable and equal. Outside of that, there is no way to posit wisdom.

— 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

Endless Lifetimes, Endless Benefit
by Bethany Saltman

Bethany Saltman talks with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo about rebirth, merit, and the Bodhisattva vow.

Venerable Tenzin Palmo is best known as the British nun who meditated in a Himalayan cave for twelve years, as described in the popular book, Cave in the Snow, by Vicki MacKenzie. Though she left retreat in 1988, she still finds herself describing that solitary life to others, and sometimes defending it. Her one request in granting this interview was: “Please, let’s not talk about the cave.”

Born in London, Tenzin Palmo was drawn to Buddhism from an early age, and in 1964, at age twenty, she sailed to India. There she met her guru, the eighth Khamtrül Rinpoche, and became one of the first Western women to be ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Before he passed away in 1980, Khamtrül Rinpoche asked Tenzin Palmo to start a nunnery, a request echoed more than a decade later by the lamas of his monastery in Tashi Jong in northern India. In 1993, Tenzin Palmo committed herself to the task of building a nunnery for women from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions. She now lives most of the year in Tashi Jong, where she has set up temporary quarters for the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. There she trains and educates nuns who might not otherwise have the opportunity to devote their lives to the dharma. She is also committed to reviving the tradition of female yogis, or togdenma, the training for which is “long, rigorous, and austere.” Several months of the year, Tenzin Palmo travels to raise funds for the nunnery, which is still under construction.

One might imagine someone like Tenzin Palmo — someone who was drawn to such extreme solitary practice — as aloof or somehow disconnected. On the contrary, she is easy to talk to, funny, opinionated, and surprisingly worldly. While her wisdom illuminates difficult concepts like rebirth and merit, what is particularly refreshing is her passionate devotion to her Bodhisattva vow — “to genuinely benefit other beings, endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.” As she makes very clear, “It’s not a quickie.”

— Bethany Saltman

How do you understand your rebirth as a female in England?

Well, it wouldn’t have been very much use being reborn in Tibet. I mean, look what happened to Tibet. It made a lot more sense, I think, to be born in the West. Why I got reborn as a female, I don’t know, but I think in my past life I must have had some sympathy for the female. But I certainly wasn’t a female last time, which was why I felt so strange in a female body when it first came.

When “it” first came?

I mean that I didn’t understand why I was in this body. When I heard that our bodies change when we got older, I thought, “Oh good, now I’ll get back to being a boy again.” But it didn’t happen like that. Now I’m glad that I’m female. I think we females have a lot of work to do for other females. So it’s good to have a female body this time.

So what do you know of your past life?

Not much. I’m not really interested. Definitely I was a disciple of my lama, which is why faith arose on just hearing his name. The day of my twenty-first birthday, he came to the Young Lamas’ Home School, where I was teaching English. I was very excited. But when I went in to see him, I was so frightened that I just stared at his feet, at his shoes. I couldn’t even look at him. So I had no idea what he looked like, whether he was old or young, fat or thin. I just knew he was my lama. I must be the only one to ever ask a lama to give them refuge without knowing what the lama looked like.

When I did look at him, I had a very strong feeling of meeting someone whom I had known for a long time. It felt like, “Oh, how lovely to see you again.” The deepest thing inside of me had suddenly taken external form. It was very strong and very simple at the same time. I never doubted, for one second, that this was my lama. Nor did he. So when I said I wanted to take refuge, he just said, “Of course,” even though we had just met. And when I said I wanted to become a nun he said, “Of course, of course! What else would you like to do?” He also said that in past lives he was always able to keep me very close to him, but that in this lifetime, as I had a female body, it would be more difficult.

It was very painful when my lama died, incredibly painful. He was only forty-eight, so we weren’t expecting it.

How did he die?

He had heart problems, and he died in Bhutan. When Tibetan lamas die they stay in a realisation of clear light nature of the mind for several days or weeks, and so he was in samadhi for quite some time while they worked out where his body would be taken. During that time the body is sitting up in meditation and it becomes very youthful and beautiful.

Did you see him like that?

I didn’t, because he was in Bhutan, but I have seen other bodies in samadhi; the body often gives off a very beautiful perfume and doesn’t decay at all. It remains perfect. And apparently, though I have never myself felt it, if you feel the heart region, it’s still warm. The brain is dead, but the heart region is still warm and the body stays very beautiful. If you pray and meditate in the presence of a person in samadhi, it’s a great blessing because at that time the lama’s mind is in a state of the clear light nature of death. Tibetans are very skillful at that. They have many teachings on how to die consciously, and how to remain in the clear light. It works — you can see it. They can stay in that state for hours, days, or weeks.

What is it like for you to work with your teacher in his next incarnation, now that he’s a different person, a young boy?

He’s not such a young boy anymore; he’s twenty-four. But he is a different person. He’s very quiet, very grounded, very centred. He doesn’t speak much. There are times when he is just there, as a lama, and then suddenly he looks at me and [snap], my whole body is filled with an electric current and a sense of certainty.

When you met him for the first time, what were your feelings? Did you have trouble relating to him as a child?

I was afraid to go and see him. He was not quite three years old. I was very frightened, partly because I was sure that when he saw me he would think, “Oh, what a funny-looking thing,” and burst into tears, and then I’d feel upset.

Because you’re a woman?

Yes, because I am a Western nun and he had never seen one, and I was concerned how a child would react to something strange. I kept putting it off and then finally I thought, I’ve got to go see him. So I went up and, as I was prostrating, he looked at me and said to his attendant, “It’s my nun! It’s my nun! Look, look.” He was jumping up and down and laughing and so happy. I burst into tears! [Laughs] I was the one who started crying, and then he became worried because I was crying, so tears started running down his cheeks. The two of us were just a riot. We then spent the whole morning playing together and we had a great time running around. His attendant later told me he was a very quiet child, who usually didn’t play with strangers.

He had his own little seat with a table in front, where he would sit cross-legged. When people came he would just sit there, often for hours, and he wasn’t even three yet! He would bless them and give them food. His attendants said they hadn’t taught him this. When people left, he’d ask, “Have they gone?” They’d say, “Yes, Rinpoche,” and then he’d get down and start playing with his toys. When somebody else would come, he’d drop his toys and go and sit back down again. You can’t teach someone that, not at that age. There’s an inherent knowing what to do.

When you see these genuine incarnations when they’re tiny children, and see how much they already know, how much they remember, how much they are lamas, then you really have to believe in this whole tulku system. It’s not just training. If you see young tulkus when they’re with other young monks, it’s like in a Broadway show or something, where the main character is spotlighted and the others kind of fade into the background. You think, “Who is that tulku?” Because that’s all you see, even though they’re all dressed the same and they’re all the same age. It’s like the tulku is illumined. They don’t look like the other ones.

Why are they all boys?

I asked my lama that and he said that his sister, at the time of her birth, had more auspicious signs than he did. You know, Tibetans have a big thing about signs when the mother is pregnant and at the time of birth. He said, “My sister, when she was going to be born, had more signs than I did, and everyone got very excited. Then when it was a girl, they said, ‘Oops, mistake.’” Now if she had been a boy, they would have looked after her, sent her to a good monastery, tried to find out who she was, and so forth. She would have been properly trained and been able to benefit other beings. But because she was a girl—with the way things were in Tibet — she was nothing. She was ignored. She wasn’t educated. Instead, she was married off at the right time. He said this happened again and again. He said, therefore, because of the social culture of Tibet, it just didn’t make sense to come back as a girl. The only way girls could come back and actually have a chance was to be reborn in very high lama families. That way they could get education and training and eventually function as lamas. But ordinary women wouldn’t have that opportunity. Even as nuns they don’t have the opportunity because they’re not educated.

So were people mistaken about your lama’s sister?

No, I think it was a tulku trying to break the mould. But you can’t.

Do you think it will ever be broken?

Certainly in the Tibetan communities in exile, the girls are being educated the same as the boys. And now the nuns are being given the same kind of monastic education as the monks. So if there is someone with potential, hopefully it will flower and they will have the kind of training that will enable them to benefit others. But still, almost all the tulkus being born are men.

At Zen Mountain Monastery we are studying one of Master Dogen’s fascicles, Jinzu (Spiritual Power), and the whole sangha is wrestling with this right now. The question that Daido Roshi keeps putting to us is this: Layman Pang said that my wondrous functioning is chopping wood and carrying water. So the question is, what’s the difference between somebody who is chopping wood and carrying water as activity that needs to happen to keep the fire burning, and someone who does that as a realisation of spiritual power?

I think the difference is that when an ordinary person drinks tea, we just drink tea. When an enlightened being drinks tea, that being drinks tea from a state of recognised primordial awareness, and that’s very different. Someone once said to me, “How is that when you and I and drink coffee, we just drink coffee, and when Rinpoche drinks coffee, it’s Buddha activity?” It’s true. If you’re in the presence of a genuine master, without even doing anything the master affects you at a profound level. It’s natural, spontaneous activity. Buddha activity doesn’t mean radiating light and elevating yourself up a thousand feet in the air. That’s not the point. The point, as Zen is always saying, and Tibetans understand this very well also, is that every activity becomes perfect Buddha activity. And anyone sensitive feels that at a very profound level.

Do you think this kind of awareness is particularly difficult for Western students?

I think the problem with Western students is that they’re very ambitious. One needs to learn the path without the goal — the feeling that wherever you are, that’s where you are and, at that moment, it is a completely perfect place to be. Enjoy the flowers at your feet. Western Tibetan Buddhists are always looking out at the distant snow peaks and they lose sight of the flowers along the path. It’s Buddhahood or bust! Actually we’ve got countless lifetimes, so relax.

I would like to ask you about the Bodhisattva vow. You said in one of your talks that the only way the Bodhisattva ideal can work is if we have the understanding of many lifetimes. But if we say we have many lifetimes, can this lead to practitioners saying, “Well, I guess I don’t really need to work too hard”?

No, we have to work very hard at it, because this precious life is our opportunity. It’s important to realise that the coming together of so many forces at this time is very rare. We’re human beings, and that in itself is a rare opportunity. We are not one of the millions and millions of other beings that are not human. So here you are, you are a human being. You’re educated. You’re in a country where, despite everything, you do have the freedom to practice what you want to practice. You have met with the dharma. All these are very rare events.

If I were to say, “Forget it, I give up,” what might happen in my next lifetime?

Who knows where you would be reborn? If you lose interest in the dharma you might be reborn anywhere in the world, and not in a place where you are likely to meet with the dharma again. And then what? Then you’re completely off the path.

How is the dharma’s understanding of merit different from thinking that if I’m a good girl in this life, then I will go to heaven?

But we don’t want to go to heaven. We want to be reborn so that we can keep going and realise the dharma so as to benefit other beings endlessly. It’s a very different thing. We’re not collecting merit scores for ourselves. We’re making merit so that we can be reborn in a situation where we can really live to benefit others, and ourselves, again and again and again, more and more and more every time. We are in a position to deepen our understanding to be of genuine benefit to other beings.

What is your understanding of merit in terms of being a monastic or a layperson?

I think it’s a meritorious action to become a monk or a nun, provided that your motivation is pure. If you become a monastic because you think it’s an easy life, because you’re going to be fed and sheltered and people will respect you, then that is not a very meritorious motivation. If you become a monk or a nun because this will give you the freedom to study and practice and benefit both yourself and others, then that is a very meritorious action.

Do monastics accrue more merit than someone who decides to stay a layperson because she thinks she will benefit more beings working in a hospital, or a school?

I do think that when someone decides to devote oneself entirely to spiritual life, that that is more meritorious.

And working in the world with children, with people who are ill, you don’t see that as dharma activity?

It is dharma activity, but the problem is our inherent ignorance keeps us in samsara and unable to really, on a deep level, benefit ourselves and others. For example, some students went to Milarepa and said, “We should stop living in caves and meditating and instead go out and help beings as Bodhisattvas.” Milarepa replied that as long as space exists, so long will there be beings for you to help. First you have to help yourself. So, for example, say you wanted to be a doctor and you think to yourself, “I’ve got all these beings. They’re sick, they’re dying, and I’ve got to go out and help them.” Then you grab a bag full of scalpels and medicine and rush off. But even though your motivation is very pure, you end up harming beings because you don’t know what you’re doing. If you say, “No, I can’t take time to study, all these beings are dying, I’ve got to go out and help them,” your motivation is good but it lacks wisdom. However, if you take the time to really study how to be a proper doctor, then there are endless beings out there whom you could help.

So from a Buddhist point of view, the first thing is to help yourself, to get your own mind together, and to really understand how to benefit beings, not just on the physical level, but on all levels. Then there are endless beings you can benefit.

In terms of merit, what about the koan where Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, “What merit have I attained?” And Bodhidharma said, “No merit whatsoever”?

That’s from the point of view of emptiness, where there is neither merit nor no merit.

And so, what about that?

Yes, from the point of view of emptiness there is neither being nor non-being. But we’re not dealing with the point of view of emptiness; we’re dealing with the point of view of our relative being. Our relative being is what rules our relative world. So from the point of view of the relative world, merit is very important, because merit clears away obstacles. Why do some people, when they want to practice, keep coming up against problems and obstacles — inner and outer obstacles? It’s because of the lack of merit. Merit soothes things; it clears you. It’s like oil that gets things working nicely.

I feel I’ve had many incarnations since I was born thirty-five years ago. That is my understanding of rebirth — that it’s happening constantly.

That’s also true. We’re reborn every second, every moment. It’s on many levels.

And what about the feeling that I am not a completely different person than I was yesterday? Is that my delusion?

That is ego-clinging, yes. But on a relative level, you need to have a sense of identity; otherwise you’d fall apart, wouldn’t you? To be enlightened doesn’t mean you end up stupefied and unable to function.

So what does it mean?

[Sighs] To be completely enlightened means that you’re a Buddha. I don’t speak of enlightenment.

Has anybody been completely enlightened since the Buddha?

There are certain people who some think are enlightened. The problem with the word “enlightenment” is what you mean by it. A Zen master gave an example, which Huineng and others would have repudiated, but it explains what we mean by enlightened and enlightenment. It’s about using the mind as a mirror, and having dust. This is a good example because it shows what we’re talking about. If you put a little pin in the middle and you make a little space, a little circle, then the nature of the mirror shines through. Now you know the mind is not dust, that behind that dust there is this mirror like nature of the mind. If it’s a big enough hole, you might be so transfixed by the hole that you don’t notice the rest of the dust. So you think you’re enlightened. But as my lama said, when you realise the intrinsic nature of the mind, then you start to meditate. That’s not the end; it’s the beginning. It’s only when all the dust is gone from the mirror, and there is only mirror, that we’re really enlightened. So that’s a lot of work. Some people get very deep experiences and they think they’re enlightened. But that’s not enlightenment; that’s just some realisation. Realisation is wonderful, but you have to expand it until there’s not a single defilement left in the mind and the mind is completely open and spacious. Even in that condition, you still use the relative mind. The Buddha himself said, “I still use conceptual thinking, but I’m not formed by it.”

How do you think you have affected the world by re-entering after many years in retreat and sharing your knowledge with us?

I don’t think I’ve changed anything, but I hope that by my talks I have encouraged people in their practice. That’s as much as any of us can do. Most of the people I talk to are not going to go off and live in a cave. Why should they? So I talk about how people can stop separating dharma practice — going on retreats, going to dharma centres, hearing talks, reading books — from family and social life, which they consider ordinary, mundane activity. We need to transform those ordinary, daily activities into dharma practice, because otherwise nothing is going to move. It’s very important to realise that with the right attitude, a little awareness, and skillful means, we can transform everything — all our joys and sorrows. The dharma is every breath we take, every thought we think, every word we speak, if we do it with awareness and an open, caring heart.

Lotus 175.

So if we love someone, we should train in being able to listen. By listening with calm and understanding, we can ease the suffering of another person. An hour spent in this way can already relieve a great deal of another person’s pain.

— Thich Nhat Hanh




















You are not here to change the world. The world is here to change you.

— Shantideva

The Wheel Of Existence
by Geshe Sonam Rinchen

The Buddha’s supreme disciples Shariputra and Maudgalyayana are said to have visited various otherworldly realms, including the hell realms. On their return they described six states of existence to the Buddha’s followers and spoke about the four noble truths, explaining the process of taking rebirth in a way that made a profound impact on their listeners. The Buddha knew that they would not always be present to do this, so he arranged for images depicting this process — the twelve links of dependent arising — to be painted in the porches of temples. In each temple a monk was given the task of explaining these paintings and their import to those who were interested. Even today many Tibetan temples contain an image of the wheel of existence painted on the walls at the entrance.

In this depiction, the twelve links are shown as part of the wheel or circle of existence, which is held by the Lord of Death, who appears as an ogre. He grips the wheel with the long claws of his front and hind paws, holding it against his belly and chest. The top of the wheel is in his mouth. At the hub are three creatures: a pig, a bird, and a snake, denoting ignorance, desire, and anger, respectively. They are at the centre of the wheel because these three main disturbing emotions are the primary causes that keep us in cyclic existence.

The snake and the bird seem to be coming out of the pig’s mouth because ignorance is the principal of these three disturbing states of mind.

The wheel is divided into sections of which the three lower ones show the realms of hell beings, hungry spirits, and animals. These segments signify the suffering of pain. There are three upper sections representing the human realm, the abodes of the gods belonging to the desire realm, and those of the gods belonging to the form realm. The first two represent the suffering of change, while the latter represents the pervasive suffering of conditioning.

The different kinds of suffering have been caused by contaminated actions underlain by the disturbing emotions. To show how this happens, the twelve links of dependent arising — ignorance, formative action, consciousness, name and form, the six sources, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, existence, birth, and ageing and death — are painted around the rim of the wheel.

The scenes within each section show what living beings experience in that particular kind of rebirth. The fact that the Lord of Death holds the wheel of existence in his mouth signifies impermanence and that everything is subject to transience. Up above is the moon, symbolising the third noble truth, true cessation of suffering. Below that is the Buddha pointing to this moon to remind us that he has shown us the path to liberation and has taught the four truths in an unerring way. His presence is a sign that we cannot reach freedom without understanding what needs to be practised and what must be avoided. For this we depend on him and our spiritual teachers, who communicate to us what he taught. At the bottom of the painting there are usually some lines explaining the process that keeps us in cyclic existence and how that process can be reversed. These lines indicate the key insights that we need to gain while we practice the fourth noble truth, the true paths.

In paintings of the wheel of existence certain images are traditionally used to symbolise each of the twelve links, though these may vary.

(1) The initial ignorance that starts the whole process off each time is shown as a blind old woman. She is not only unable to see what lies before her but wanders around lost. This illustrates how our inability to understand reality causes us to wander powerlessly through the three states of existence — the desire, form, and formless realms.

(2) Formative action is a potter making pots and also sometimes the potter’s wheel. The potter turns the wheel and produces different kinds of pots. Formative action is of different kinds — virtuous, non-virtuous, and unfluctuating. These actions result in the different kinds of rebirth.

(3) Consciousness is a monkey in a house with six windows through which the monkey looks out. These windows symbolise our six faculties, through which we experience pleasure and pain.

(4) Name and form are a boat which conveys the idea of travelling from one life to another. This link is also sometimes represented by a tripod covered with cloth, like a shelter we might make on a hot day. The tripod cannot balance on two legs but needs all three to stand. The three are interdependent. Similarly the five aggregates that make up name and form are interdependent and cannot exist on their own. Moreover, the existence of the person depends on them. When we think about this, it helps us to understand lack of independence and to gain a correct understanding of reality — that things are empty of inherent existence and are all dependently existent.

(5) The six sources are an empty house or empty town. Sometimes from the outside a house appears to be inhabited, but when we enter it, we realise it is empty. The empty house indicates that in the womb the different faculties gradually develop, but consciousness is not yet functioning in conjunction with them. The mental faculty is present from the outset, but the other five faculties develop as the fetus grows. They are unable to experience their objects until the link of contact occurs. The empty house also stands for selflessness. The six faculties come into being through the force of past actions, but they are not the objects of use or possessions of an intrinsically existent self.

(6) Contact is a couple engaged in sexual union. To have intercourse their bodies must touch. For contact to occur, an object of perception, a faculty, and a consciousness must come together.

(7) Feeling is a person whose eye is pierced by an arrow. Just as we would feel intense pain the moment that happened, so when the quality of an object is discerned, pleasurable, painful, or neutral sensations or feelings immediately follow.

(8) Craving is a person drinking beer. Alcoholics never feel satisfied no matter how much they drink. On the contrary, their craving for alcohol simply increases. They will drink away their wealth, property, and possessions. Similarly desire keeps growing. We crave different kinds of feelings and wish not to be separated from pleasurable ones, to be free from unpleasant and painful ones as quickly as possible, and for neutral feelings not to decline. Craving keeps growing and makes us perform all kinds of negative actions that bring us suffering.

(9) Grasping is a monkey sitting in a tree full of ripe fruit. While it eats one fruit, it is already reaching out to take another. It is consumed by greed and cannot be satisfied. Grasping is reaching out for the aggregates of the next life.

(10) Existence is a woman who is nine months pregnant and whose baby is fully grown in the womb, about to be born. Existence occurs when the imprint of a former action has been fully activated through craving and grasping and everything is ready to produce the next rebirth.

(11) Birth is a woman holding her newly born child, while (12) ageing and death are shown as someone who is no longer young carrying a corpse.

The usual way in which the twelve links are enumerated, which emphasise the relationships between the links, differs from the order in which they actually occur. The first three links begin the process. Then the eighth, ninth, and tenth occur, followed by the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. The eleventh occurs simultaneously with the fourth and marks the point of conception. Regarding the twelfth link, ageing begins the moment after conception and thus inevitably precedes death.

Most of us have not done much philosophical speculation about our own origins or those of the world but we do hold some hazy ideas about what is responsible for our experiences of suffering or happiness. Usually we attribute them to external factors and circumstances or we may go a little beyond our everyday material world and attribute them to spirit influences, the phases of the moon, the astrological position of constellations, and so forth. Many people regard misfortune as some kind of punishment. The Buddha encouraged us to look within and think more deeply about what is responsible for our present condition. He pointed out that as long as we continue to be born as a result of our ignorance and the compulsive actions which stem from it, we cannot escape the many kinds of physical and mental suffering that are their inevitable consequence.

Wheel Of Life 11


Our perception of space alters the space. It is consciousness that finds meanings in all spaces.

— Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche