Karmic Vision
Six realms
The doors of perception
The wisdom of egolessness
Ego on the spiritual path

I take refuge in the Buddha, the Darhma, and the Sangha


The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

"Every spiritual tradition has stressed that this human life is unique, and has potential that ordinarily we hardly even begin to imagine. If we miss the opportunity this life offers us for transforming ourselves, they say, it may well be an extremely long time before we have another. 

Imagine a blind turtle, roaming the depths of an ocean the size of the universe. Up above floats a wooden ring, tossed to and fro on the waves. Every hundred years the turtle comes, once, to the surface. To be born a human being is said by Buddhists to be more difficult than for the turtle to surface accidentally with its head poking through the wooden ring. And even among those who have a human birth, it is said, those who have the great fortune to make a connection with the teachings are rare; and those who really take them to heart and embody them in their actions even rarer, as rare, in fact, 'as stars in broad daylight'."

Sogyal Rinpoche 


The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.  
Sogyal Rinpoche

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 Mental health, a Tibetan Buddhist perspective

Introduction- The Natural Bardo

"We can divide the whole of our existence into four realities: life, dying and death, after-death, and rebirth. 

Let us explore the first of the Four Bardos, the natural Bardo of this life, and all its many implications; then we will proceed to explore the other three bardos in the appropriate time and order.

The natural Bardo of this life spans the whole of our lifetime between birth and death.

Its teaching makes clear to us

  • why this Bardo is such a precious opportunity?

  • what it really means to be a human being?

  • and what is the most important and only true essential thing for us to do with the gift of this human life?

The masters tell us that there is an aspect of our minds that in its fundamental basis, is a state called "the ground of the ordinary mind."

Longchenpa, the outstanding fourteenth century Tibetan master, describes it in this way;

"It is unenlightenment and a neutral state, which belongs to the category of mind and mental events, and it has become the foundation of all karmas and 'traces' of samsara and nirvana". It functions like a storehouse, in which the imprints of past actions caused by our negative emotions are all stored like seeds. When the right conditions arise, they germinate and manifest as circumstances and situations in our lives.

Imagine this ground of the ordinary mind as being like a bank in which karma is deposited as imprints and habitual tendencies.

If we have a habit of thinking in a particular pattern, positive or negative, then these tendencies will be triggered and provoked very easily and recur and go on recurring.

With constant repetition our inclinations and habits become steadily more entrenched, and go on continuing, increasing and gathering power, even when we sleep. This is how they come to determine our life, our death, and our rebirth.

We often wonder: "How will I be when I die?"

The answer to that is that whatever state of mind we are in now, whatever kind of person we are now, that's what we will be like at the moment of death, if we do not change. This is why it is so absolutely important to use this lifetime to purify our mindstream, and so our basic being and character, while we can.

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Karmic Vision

How is it that we come to be alive as human beings?

All beings who have similar karma will have a common vision of the world around them, and this set of perceptions they share is called 'a karmic vision."

That close correspondence between our karma and the kind of realm in which we find ourselves also explains how different forms arise: You and I, for example, are human beings because of the basic common karma that we share.

Yet even within the human realm, all of us have our own individual karma.

We are born in different countries, cities, or families; we each have different upbringings, education, influences and beliefs, and all this conditioning comprises that karma. Each one of us is a complex summation of habits and past actions, and so we cannot but see things in our own uniquely personal way.

Human beings look much the same but perceive things utterly differently, and we each live in our own unique and separate individual worlds. As Kalu Rinpoche says:

"If a hundred people sleep and dream, each of them will experience a different world in his dream. Everyone's dream might be said to be true, but it would be meaningless to ascertain that only one person's dream was the true world and all others were fallacies. There is truth for each perceiver according to the karmic patterns conditioning his perceptions."

Six Realms

"Our human existence is not the only kind of karmic vision.

Six realms of existence are identified in Buddhism: gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells.

They are each the result of one of the six main negative emotions: pride, jealousy, desire, ignorance, greed, and anger.

Do these realms actually exist externally?

They may, in fact, exist beyond the range of the perception of our karmic vision. Let's never forget: What we see is what our karmic vision allows us to see, and no more. Just as we, in the present, unpurified, and unevolved state of our perception, can only be aware of this universe, an insect might see one of our fingers as a whole landscape in itself.

We are so arrogant that we believe only "seeing is believing."

Yet the great Buddhist teachings speak of innumerable worlds in different dimensions- there may even be many worlds very like, or just like ours- and several modern astrophysicists have developed theories about the existence of parallel universes. How can we possibly say definitively what does or does not exist beyond the bounds of our limited vision?

Looking at the world around us, and into our own minds, we can see that the six realms definitely do exist.

They exist in the way we unconsciously allow our negative emotions to project and crystallize entire realms around us, and to define the style, form, flavor, and context of our life in those realms. And they exist also inwardly as the different seeds and tendencies of the various negative emotions within our psychophysical system, always ready to germinate and grow, depending on what influences them and how we choose to live.

Let's look at how some of these realms are projected into and crystallized in the world around us.

The main feature of the realm of the gods, for example, is that it is devoid of suffering, a realm of changeless beauty and sensual ecstasy. Imagine the gods: tall, blond surfers, lounging on beaches and in gardens flooded by brilliant sunshine, listening to any kind of music they choose, intoxicated by every kind of stimulant, high on meditation, yoga, bodywork, and ways of improving themselves, but never taxing their brains, never confronting any complex or painful situation, never conscious of their true nature, and so anesthetized that they are never aware of what their condition really is.

If some parts of California and Australia spring to mind as the realm of the gods, you can see the demigod realm being acted out everyday perhaps in the intrigue and rivalry of Wall Street, or in the seething corridors of Washington and Whitehall. And the hungry ghost realms? They exist wherever people, though immensely rich, are never satisfied, craving to take over this company or that one, or endlessly playing out their greed in court cases. Switch on any television channel and you have entered immediately the world of demigods and hungry ghosts.

The quality of life in the realm of the gods may look superior to our own, yet the masters tell us that human life is infinitely more valuable. Why? Because of the very fact that we have the awareness and intelligence that are the raw materials for enlightenment, and because the very suffering that pervades this human realm is itself the spur to spiritual transformation. Pain, grief, loss, and ceaseless frustration of every kind are there for a real and dramatic purpose: to wake us up, to enable and almost force us to break out of the cycle of samsara and so release our imprisoned splendor.

Every spiritual tradition has stressed that this human life is unique, and has potential that ordinarily we hardly even begin to imagine. If we miss the opportunity this life offers us for transforming ourselves, they say, it may well be an extremely long time before we have another. Imagine a blind turtle, roaming the depths of an ocean the size of the universe. Up above floats a wooden ring, tossed to and fro on the waves. Every hundred years the turtle comes, once, to the surface. To be born a human being is said by Buddhists to be more difficult than for the turtle to surface accidentally with its head poking through the wooden ring. And even among those who have a human birth, it is said, those who have the great fortune to make a connection with the teachings are rare; and those who really take them to heart and embody them in their actions even rarer, as rare, in fact, 'as stars in broad daylight'."

The Doors of Perception

As I have said, how we perceive the world depends entirely on our Karmic vision.

The masters use a traditional example: six different kinds of being meet by the banks of a river. The human being in the group sees the river as water, a substance to wash in or to quench his thirst; for an animal such as a fish, the river is its home; the god sees it as nectar that brings bliss; the demigod as a weapon; the hungry ghost as pus and putrid blood; and the being from the hell realm as molten lava. The water is the same, but it is perceived in totally different, even contradictory, ways.

This profusion of perceptions shows us that all karmic visions are illusions; for if one substance can be perceived in so many different ways, how can anything have any one true, inherent reality? It also shows us how it is possible that some people feel this world as heaven, and others as hell.

The teachings tell us that there are essentially three kinds of vision: the "impure, karmic vision" of ordinary beings; the "vision of experience", which opens to practitioners in meditation and is the path or medium of transcendence; and the "pure vision' of realized beings. A realized being, or a Buddha, will perceive this world as spontaneously perfect, a completely and dazzling pure realm. Since they have purified all the causes of karmic vision, they see everything directly in its naked, primordial sacredness.

Everything that we see around us is seen as it is because we have been repeatedly solidifying our experience of inner and outer reality in the same way, lifetime after lifetime, and this has led to the mistaken assumption that what we is objectively real. In fact, as we go further along the spiritual path, we learn how to work directly with our fixed perceptions. All our old concepts of the world or matter or even ourselves are purified and dissolved, and an entirely new, what you could call "heavenly" field of vision and perception opens up. As Blake says:

If the doors of perception were cleansed,
Everything would it is, infinite.

I shall never forget when Dudjom Rinpoche, in a moment of intimacy, leaned toward me and said in his soft, hoarse, slightly high-pitched voice: "You know, don't you, that actually all these things around us go away, just go away..."

With most of us, however, karma and negative emotions obscure the ability to see our own intrinsic nature, and the nature of reality. As a result, we clutch onto happiness and suffering as real, and in our unskilled and ignorant actions go on sowing the seeds of our next birth. Our actions keep us bound to the continuous cycle of worldly existence, to the endless round of birth and death. So everything is at risk in how we live now, at this very moment: How we live now can cost us our entire future.

This is the real and urgent reason why we must prepare now to meet death wisely, to transform our karmic future, and to avoid the tragedy of falling into delusion again and again and repeating the painful round of birth and death.

This life is the only time and place we can prepare in, and we can only truly prepare through spiritual practice: This is the inescapable message of the natural Bardo of this life. As Padmasambhava says:

Now when the Bardo of this life is dawning upon me,
I will abandon laziness for which life has no time,
Enter, undistracted, the path of listening and hearing,
reflection and contemplation, and meditation,
Making perceptions and mind the path, and realize the
"three kayas"; the enlightened mind:
Now that I have once attained a human body
There is no time on the path for the mind to wonder."

The Wisdom of Egolessness

"I sometime wonder what a person from a little village in Tibet would feel if you suddenly brought him to a modern city with all its sophisticated technology?

He would probably think he had already died and was in the Bardo state.

He would gape incredulously at the planes flying in the sky above him, or at someone talking on the telephone to another person on the other side of the world. He would assume he was witnessing miracles. And yet all this seems normal to someone living in the modern world with a Western education, which explains the scientific background to these things, step by step.

In just the same way, in Tibetan Buddhism there is a basic, normal, elementary spiritual education, a complete spiritual training for the natural Bardo of this life, which give you the essential vocabulary, the ABC of the mind.

The bases of this training are what are called the "three wisdom tools":

  • the wisdom of listening and hearing

  • the wisdom of contemplation and reflection

  • and the wisdom of meditation.

Through them we are brought to reawaken to our true nature, through them we uncover and come to embody the joy and freedom of what we truly are, what we call "the wisdom of egolessness."

Imagine a person who suddenly wakes up in hospital after a road accident to find she is suffering from total amnesia. Outwardly, everything is intact: she has the same face and form, her sense and her mind are there, but she doesn't have any idea or any trace of a memory of who she really is. In exactly the same way, we cannot remember our true identity, our original nature. Frantically, and in real dread, we cast around and improvise another identity, one we clutch onto with all the desperation of someone falling continuously into an abyss. This false and ignorantly assumed identity is "ego."

So ego, then, is the absence of true knowledge of who we really are, together with its result: a doomed clutching on, at all costs, to a cobbled together and makeshift image of ourselves, an inevitably chameleon charlatan self that keeps changing and has to, to keep alive the fiction of its existence. In Tibetan ego is called dak dzin, which means "grasping to a self." Ego is then defined as incessant movements of grasping at a delusory notion of "I" and "mine", self and other, and all the concepts, ideas, desires, and activity that will sustain that false construction. Such a grasping is futile from the start and condemned to frustration, for there is no basis or truth in it, and what we are grasping at is by its very nature ungraspable. The fact that we need to grasp at all and go on and on grasping shows that in the depths of our being we know that the self does not inherently exist. From this secret, unnerving knowledge spring all our fundamental insecurities and fear.

So long as we haven't unmasked the ego, it continues to hoodwink us, like a sleazy politician endlessly parading bogus promises, or a lawyer constantly inventing ingenious lies and defenses, or a talk show host going on and on talking, keeping up a stream of suave and emptily convincing chatter, which actually says nothing at all.

Lifetimes of ignorance have brought us to identify the whole of our being with ego. Its greatest triumph is to inveigle us into believing its best interests are our best interests, and even into identifying our very survival with its own. This is a savage irony, considering that ego and its grasping are at the root of our suffering. Yet ego is so convincing, and we have been its dupe for so long, that the thought that we might ever become egoless terrifies us. To be egoless, ego whispers to us, is to lose all the rich romance of being human, to be reduced to colorless robot or a brain-dead vegetable.

Ego plays brilliantly on our fundamental fear of losing control, and of the unknown. We might say to ourselves: "I should really let go of ego, I'm in such pain; but if I do, what's going to happen to me?"

Ego will chime in, sweetly: "I know I'm sometime a nuisance, and believe me, I quite understand if you want me to leave. But is that really what you want? Who will look after you? Who will protect and care for you like I've done all these years?"

And even if we were to see through ego's lies, we are just too scared to abandon it; for without any true knowledge of the nature of our mind, or true identity, we simply have no other alternative. Again and again we cave in to its demands with the same sad self-hatred as the alcoholic feels reaching for the drink that he knows is destroying him, or the drug addict groping for the drug that she knows after a brief high will only leave here flat and desperate."

Ego On The Spiritual Path

"To end the bizarre tyranny of ego is why we go on the spiritual path, but the resourcefulness of ego is almost infinite and it can at every stage sabotage and pervert our desire to be free of it.

The truth is simple, and the teachings are extremely clear; but I have seen again and again, with great sadness, that as soon as they begin to touch and move us, ego tries to complicate them because it knows it is fundamentally threatened.

At the beginning, when we first become fascinated by the spiritual path and all its possibilities, ego may even encourage us and say: "This is really wonderful. Just the thing for you! This teaching makes total sense!"

Then when we say we want to try meditation practice, or go on a retreat, ego will croon: "What a marvelous idea! Why don't I come with you. We can both learn something." All through the honeymoon period of our spiritual development, ego will keep urging us on: "This is wonderful- it's so amazing, so inspiring..."

But as soon as we enter what I call the "Kitchen sink" period of the spiritual path, and the teachings begin to touch us deeply, unavoidably we are faced with the truth of ourselves. As the ego is revealed, its sore spots are touched, and all sorts of problems will start arising. It's as if a mirror we cannot look away from were stuck in front of us. The mirror is totally clear, but there is an ugly, glowering face in it, our own, staring back at us. We begin to rebel because we hate what we see; we may strike out in anger and smash the mirror, but it will only shatter into hundreds of identical ugly faces, all still staring at us.

Now is the time we begin to rage and complain bitterly; and where is our ego? Standing staunchly by our side, egging us on: "You're quite right, this is outrageous and unbearable. Don't stand for it!" As we listen enthralled, ego goes on to conjure up all sorts of doubts and demented emotions, throwing fuel on the fire: "Can't you see now this is not the right teaching for you? I told you so all along! Can't you see he is not your teacher? After all, you are an intelligent, modern, sophisticated Western person, and exotic things like Zen, Sufism, meditation, Tibetan Buddhism belong to foreign, Eastern cultures. What possible use could a philosophy made up in the Himalayas a thousand years ago be to you?"

As ego watches us gleefully become more and more ensnared in its web, it will even blame all the pain, loneliness, and difficulties we are going through as we come to know ourselves on the teaching, and even on the teacher: "These gurus don't care anyway, whatever you're going through. They are only out to exploit you. They just use words like 'compassion' and 'devotion' to get you in their power..."

Ego is so clever that it can twist the teachings for its own purposes; after all, "The devil can quote scriptures for his own ends." Ego's ultimate weapon is to point its finger hypocritically at the teach and his followers, and say: "No one around here seems to be living up to the truth of the teachings!" Now ego poses as the righteous arbiter of all conduct: the shrewdest position of all from which to undermine your faith, and erode whatever devotion and commitment to spiritual change you have.

Yet however hard ego may try to sabotage the spiritual path, if you continue on it, and work deeply with the practice of meditation, you will begin slowly to realize just how gulled you have been by ego's promises: false hopes and false fears. Slowly you begin to understand that both hopes and fear are enemies of our peace of mind; hopes deceive you, and leave you empty and disappointed, and fears paralyze you in the narrow cell of your fake identity.

You begin to see also just how all-encompassing the sway of ego has been over your meditation, when you are momentarily released from grasping, you glimpse the exhilarating spaciousness of your true nature.

You realize that for years, your ego, like a crazy con artist, has been swindling you with schemes and plans and promises that have never been real and have only brought you to inner bankruptcy. When, in the equanimity of meditation, you see this, without any consolation or desire to cover up what you've discovered, all the plans and schemes reveal themselves as hollow and start to crumble.

This is not a purely destructive process. For alongside an extremely precise and sometimes painful realization of the fraudulence and virtual criminality of your ego, and everyone else's, grows a sense of inner expansiveness, a direct knowledge of the "egolessness" and interdependence of all things, and that vivid and generous humor that is the hallmark of freedom.

Because you have learned through discipline to simplify your life, and so reduce the opportunities for ego to seduce you; and because you have practiced the mindfulness of meditation, and through it loosened the hold of aggression, clinging, and negativity on your whole being, the wisdom of insight can slowly dawn. And in the all-revealing clarity of its sunlight this insight can show you, distinctly and directly, both the subtlest workings of your own mind and the nature of reality."


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