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Missed Opportunities, Part 1

Missed Opportunities, Part 1

by A. H. Almaas, February 2013

A year ago a friend gave me a book titled Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying—An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama, edited and narrated by Francisco Varela, Ph. D. published in 1997. It is a narration of one of the first times His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) met and dialogued with Western scientists and researchers. The group included philosophers, psychologists, ecologists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists. Because HHDL was not only knowledgeable both intellectually and experientially with the Tibetan teaching systems but also open to listen and question, I found this an unusual opportunity for a dialogue and true investigation that crossed the boundaries of both religions and research areas. And it was clear that the Western researchers came prepared.

Reading the book, I found the topics interesting. The discussions were mostly about dreams, lucid dreaming and its practices, sleep in its varieties both in the Tibetan Buddhist perspective and Western science, and death and dying. Given the topics covered, a great deal of time was spent on the nature of consciousness and awareness. I found almost all of the discussions interesting and satisfying. But I was left feeling that on two significant occasions an opportunity was missed for an even greater delving into the interface between Tibetan Buddhism and Western thought.

  1. In the Chapter on Dreams and the Unconscious, the discussion centered on the nature of consciousness and the self, especially on what accounts for the continuity of experience and consciousness. The discussion became interesting particularly because the Tibetans believe there is a continuity between various lives of different incarnations, at the same time they do not believe in the existence of a self that abides or a soul that can survive death. HHDL first explains the Prasangika Madhyamika view—coming from the Sutra not the Tantra division—of how the continuity of self or person is understood in conventional terms: “The validity of the person’s continuity is explained conventionally: in conventional terms, you can validly say that I had a previous experience at a particular time which has resulted in my present behavior. That is, you can maintain that this person, ‘I’ who is experiencing the consequence now is ‘same person’ as the person who had the earlier experience.” p. 93. The idea is that we can see and say such things but that upon investigation we cannot find such a person or “I”. There is experiential continuity but no ontological basis for it. This is the most common Buddhist view of how we seem to have a continuity of experiencing ourselves.

The interesting thing is what HHDL said after that. It is something I have heard and read many times as expressed in some of the higher tantras of Tibetan Buddhism, but I have not seen or heard of any Westerner seeing the implications of it in terms of our Western notions. He goes on to say: “The tantra, or Vajrayana, perspective is perfectly compatible with the Prasangika view, but also posits something further, namely a continuum of a very subtle mind, and a continuum of very subtle vital energy, which is of the same nature as that subtle mind.” This topic actually arose in the discussion several times in the days that the Western researchers dialogued with HHDL, but not even once did any of them grasp its import as it relates to Western concepts of person or “I”, or if anyone did, nothing was said about it. The main point is the following: “This twofold continuum is forever unbroken, from beginningless time to endless future; and this is the subtle basis of designation for self. So the self can be designated on the basis of gross physical and mental aggregates, and also on the basis of these very subtle phenomena.” p. 93

HHDL continues to explain that even though there is such a subtle consciousness that continues through life and death—through all of life and through many incarnations—it ultimately has no inherent existence. He also defines the gross continuum as that of the ordinary emotions and thoughts, and the subtle continuum as that of the nature of clear light. But also that the latter carries the former, and the former tends to obscure the latter, that is, the clear light nature of the continuum.

In other words, the continuity of experience for any person is explained by a continuum of consciousness that has two levels, one gross consisting of ordinary emotions and thoughts, and one subtle that is the nature of clear light. When I was reading that, I was wondering what more did HHDL have to say in order for someone to realize he was talking about the individual soul as described in Western religious and philosophical traditions. Without saying the word, HHDL was actually saying, as many of the texts of the higher tantras clearly and repeatedly indicate, that there is a soul—that each individual is a soul that continues throughout life and after life.

“Not so fast,” some might say. “You must not forget that HHDL made sure to state that the subtle continuum of clear light does not have an ultimate inherent existence. Clear light is empty of inherent existence.” Yet, we need to remember that Buddhism denies such inherent existence to any and all things. It denies it to the body, to the mountains, to Buddha, to everything. So the continuum of awareness is not singled out here; it, like everything else, is characterized ontologically by nonbeing—in other words, its being is inseparable from its nonbeing. This has been an invaluable contribution that Buddhism has brought to spirituality, that regardless of how ordinary or sublime, everything is empty of ultimate or inherent existence.

Yet, we each are this continuum, experience ourselves as it and cannot have any experience without it. In other words, the continuity of experience is due to the fact that we are each a continuum of consciousness, awareness, or clear light, that carries the ordinary experiences of emotions, thoughts and images. This, in a nut shell, is actually the definition of soul in Western thought. I am bringing this up because Buddhism continues to insist that there is no self or soul. This is what sets Buddhism apart, not only from the atman concept of the Hindu schools, but from the Western traditions that adhere to the view of soul. Had I been in that discussion, I would have politely said: “Your holiness, you are here talking about what we in the West call soul. You are, in effect, agreeing with our philosophy and religions that hold that each of us is a soul that continues even after death!”

This is the opportunity that was lost, the opportunity to see that there are common threads between Western thought and Tibetan teachings about a continuum that is the basis for the concept of self. It would have been an opportunity to show that there is not as big a gulf as most people think between Buddhist thought and Judeao-Christian-Islamic thought. That the notion of soul as a continuity of experience that has at its heart a real consciousness, a true clear awareness, corresponds to the underlying continuum of consciousness of many Buddhist tantras, a continuum that the Tibetan Buddhists believe has the nature of clear light. It would have been a real dialogue, and a fruitful one at that, in bringing the various faiths closer together.

Then again, there are some who might object that soul in the Western tradition is a reified entity, which is exactly what Buddhism wants to deconstruct. On the face of it, this is a valid objection for most ordinary people in the West use the notion of soul in a reified way. However, this is not how the soul is understood in the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, nor in the Hindu traditions that Buddhism tends to debate. We can easily find references in all these mystical traditions to soul as a flow of consciousness, as a dynamic continuum of consciousness. Many understand that this flow is actually not a flow in time, but a dynamic unfoldment from the unseen world to the world of actuality. It is an upwelling that possesses a continuity, just like the flow of water from a fountain. In fact, in many of these teachings, as in some of the major philosophical traditions of the West such as Plotinus or Whitehead, there is a great care not to reify the soul and make it into a rigid or fixed entity.

I spent the first 200 pages of my major work, The Inner Journey Home, on a discussion of what soul is and how we tend to experience it as our ordinary self. In the book, I stated that once clarified of our ordinary or gross experiences and identifications, the soul reveals itself to be a flow of consciousness—a continuum of awareness that is aware of itself. Also, when its emptiness is finally recognized, the soul has the character of what the Sufis call the “clear soul,” the seventh and last of their stages of the development of the soul. I think HHDL would have been delighted to hear of this, even though it might have put him to wondering about the age-old Buddhist position that there is no soul.

Maybe none of the researchers who were having the discussion with HHDL knew of this understanding or experience of soul, or it did not occur to them, or they were too polite to contradict a major Buddhist tenet with HHDL. But it is obvious to me that HHDL has the kind of openness to have welcomed such a discussion for he has been seeking common elements in the various traditions. I think a great opportunity was missed, which I hope will not happen the next time such an opportunity is presented.

It is important to point out I was not just reading, enjoying and benefiting from the book. I always read a book by engaging my own understanding and experience. Any book becomes an interaction with what I already understand and have experienced, and hence I do not just accept or reject, but rather contemplate. I depend on an omnidirectional openness to hear and understand what is being presented, while not forgetting or side stepping what I already know from experience.

  1. In chapter 8 of this book with HHDL, the topic of near death experiences was discussed. The Western researchers presented to HHDL their findings, like the common experiences of seeing white or glowing light at the end of a tunnel, the meeting of already deceased relatives, and meeting divine beings like Christ. These are some of the elements that have been established throughout many decades from the reports of individuals who came close to death in accidents, illnesses, or surgeries. The researchers wanted to know what HHDL thought of these findings and their relation to what happens after death, according to what he knows and according to Tibetan teachings. I think they were taken aback, and probably surprised and dismayed, that he did not accept their findings as necessarily true about what happens after death. This was based on his experience and on the Bardo Thodel, the major Tibetan Buddhism text about the bardo and the stages that consciousness goes through after physical death.

HHDL responded, saying: “I am wondering whether these experiences are more of a dream type, because one constant theme that keeps coming up is this experience of joyfully reuniting with the relatives. It is very rare that relatives who have already passed away will still be in that type of existence. They would have already taken rebirth in another realm of existence … I think that it’s more likely that due to the manifestation of a person’s own imprints, or latent propensities, these very images of loved ones come to mind and one has the sense of receiving advice or encouragement from them. But it’s purely a subjective phenomenon.” pp. 188-189. The discussion continues about the fact that Buddhists would find it unlikely that these experiences happen in the bardo, or the intermediate stage after physical death.

I realize that I agree with HHDL’s question about whether these near death experiences say anything about what actually happens after death. “At this point His Holiness offered the first challenge to the current interpretation of these observations as related to ‘true’ death experiences.” p. 188. The individuals who reported such experiences did not actually totally die; they came back. So the connection to the body was not totally severed, and this could greatly affect what happens to the stream of experience of the individual.

On the other hand, if I were in that discussion, I might have said, “The Tibetan view of what happens after death—taken mostly from the Bardo Thodel and attributed to Padmasambhava—is only one view. Other teachings and traditions have other views, and most of them are different from the Tibetan view of stages of death and after death.” HHDL was assuming the Tibetan view of the stages after death, and all the Western individuals who were with him were simply accepting it as the true description of what happens. Maybe some of them thought otherwise, but it was not brought into the discussion.

I think it would have been more interesting if other teachings about death had been brought in. Or at least, if someone had questioned the Tibetan view as the only way of viewing what happens after death. I am writing this because I am aware that many in spiritual circles these days do not question the Tibetan view, and think it is the only true spiritual teaching about what happens after death. I think even in the Tibetan tradition there are significant variations, and all other traditions including different Hindu teachings, Taoism, Christianity, Kabbalah, and Sufism, among others, have their own views.

HHDL was actually open later in the discussion, when the participants brought in more findings, to reconsider the teachings or take a fresh look at them to see whether there might be a need for some modification or addition. This is clearly an indication that HHDL would have been open to discuss alternative views of after-death experience.

Since I usually bring in my own experience in relation to what I read, I realized that in the many times I have guided students or others in their journey after physical death, I have not seen heavenly lights, family members, or divine beings. It was basically the individual soul of the deceased person, struggling with whatever condition it was left with. The more spiritual realization the individual had accomplished during life, the more light, luminosity and love was there, but in their soul, not outside of it. If they had not done much spiritual practice then there was much darkness and struggle, but even then it depended on the individual and how that person lived his or her life. This part is similar to the Tibetan version, but I won’t say that I have always noticed each soul going through the stages outlined in the Bardo Thodel. Some individuals’ experiences approximated what that teaching says, but some individuals’ experiences did not follow it, or only partially. Clear light arose at the moment of death for some, but I won’t say for all, and some individuals followed the various cessations in the after death stages but not all.

This led me to think that the Tibetan teaching about the stages after death has much truth in it, but it is not to be taken as the gospel, and not to be considered the only way things can happen. We can think of it as possessing good pointers about what is possible, but not definite truth about what has to happen. One difference, for instance, is that the Tibetan teaching does not discuss how a deceased individual can be guided by his or her teacher on earth. There is no reference to the fact that that there can be a back and forth communication between the two, helping the deceased to deal with his or her after-death experience in a way that moves that person in a positive and liberating direction. The Tibetans engage in rituals and recitations of the Bardo Thodel and other texts for the deceased, but these rituals are usually not tailored to the individual and his or her particular situation. The Tibetan view tends not to recognize that practice can continue after death—in other words that the soul can continue to learn and grow. Instead it seems to believe that all souls go through the same stages, and what happens depends solely on what they learned in their life. Only very advanced sages or saints are sometimes exempted. This has not been my observation.

At the same time, I do not consider my experience to be incontrovertible evidence or proof of the truth of what I believe I saw or experienced. After all I am still alive and in the body and it seems to me that direct corroboration of what the deceased individual is actually experiencing can only come from being on their side of the death divide. What I would like to encourage in the meantime is to be open to what various teachings say, and, at the same time, question everything, even your own perceptions, until a more satisfactory method of verification than we have at present becomes available.

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