Cover Art: ©Snow Lion, Mary Ellen McCourt
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
In Tibetan culture, the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and space – are considered to be the substance of all things and processes. The study of their interactions permeates Tibetan thought.
From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience; the five negative emotions and the five wisdoms; and the five extensions of the body. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies.
They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon.
If you are looking for reading to reinvigorate your practice and your relationship to the natural world, Healing with Form Energy and Light is a welcome and accessible text for study. This very lovely introduction to the Tibetan Bön tradition gives basic instructions for working with the five elements – earth, water, fire air, and space – in three distinct levels of the Bön practice.
Healing with Form Energy and Light is an pedagogic pleasure. In a tone of strength that eschews severity, Wangyal provides many gentle reminders of the pitfalls of becoming attached to practices.
At the same time, he illuminates our tendencies towards preciousness, passivity and habit, encouraging readers to consistently explore and engage their beliefs, and to observe what is and is not effective when applying those beliefs to the challenges of day to day life.
“The practices of the spiritual path,” he writes, “if done with correct understanding and application, bring results.”
Wangyal offers the fundamentals of three “dimensions” or “levels” of practice: shamanism, tantra and Dzogchen, which he describes as external, internal, and secret.
The three dimensions are separate only conceptually. This is an important point to keep in mind when reading this book. It is a mistake to think that external, internal, and secret can truly be divided, or that external practice, tantra, and Dzogchen are mutually exclusive.
Confusion on this point leads to many of the great divisions in belief:
religions that disregard or mistrust the life of the body, secular cultures that do not recognize the sacred nature of the earth, or preoccupation with material well-being that ignores spiritual development.
In this section, Healing with Form Energy and Light provides a straightforward teaching on “relating to non-physical beings,” soul loss and “retrieval of the elemental energies.” Though the language is sober and responsible, the information is nonetheless compelling, and the eager reader may find it difficult to adhere to Wangyal’s suggestion to read only as much at a time as can be assimilated.
Wangyal explains this first way of practicing with the five elements employing the term “shamanism,” but cautions our acceptance. There are not always commensurate words in English for what he will share, he says. “Shamanism” is a placeholder not a translation.
Externally, the elements are not only the raw elements of our sensual experience – the earth we live on, the water we drink, the fire that warms us, the air we breathe, and the space through which we move – they are also the spirits connected with the elements.
These include goddesses, elemental spirits, and other beings.
Working with these beings is a common practice in Tibetan culture and is the domain of what I’m calling shamanism, though I want to be clear that there is no word like “shamanism” in the Tibetan language.
It’s refreshing to encounter a teacher who arranges the lapses of translation where they can be seen by the reader.
As we read, we should be careful not to draw conclusions about the instruction Wangyal gives based on the connotations the placeholder word “shamanism” may invoke. He asks that we work with him, and be attentive to what he’s using the word to point toward.
A physical practice done without asana
In his three levels of practice with the elements, Wangyal offers excellent descriptions of physical practices of yoga that have nothing to do with asana, or yoga poses, as we most often know them in yoga classes.
There’s absolutely no negativity about contemporary posture practice, however, and readers gain a perspective on the gifts and potentials they bring to asana or meditation by the usefulness and virtue of the body.
Like the external practice with forms, the second way of practicing with the five elements – the internal practice of tantra – is by its very nature a physical, embodied practice.
The internal elements are the elemental energies rather than their forms.
In our bodies these are the physical energies that pump our blood, digest our food, and fire our neurons, and also the more subtle energies upon which our health and capacities are based and depend.
There are also much subtler energies that cannot be detected by physical measurement but that are available to direct experience through yogic and contemplative disciplines.
Tantra recognizes the energies as divine forces.
This central section of Healing with Form Energy and Light offers a tutorial of the key concepts of Bön tantra, some such as chakras which may seem familiar, and others such as tigle which may be completely new. There is also a simple illustrated guide to the practice of Tsa Lung.
Approaching the ever embattled topic of tantra, Wangyal urges readers to understand that thinking about a practice is completely different from engaging it. This is one reason he asks us to take up our day to day life as a practice.
If we relate to the natural world as a collection of lifeless mechanical processes, it is lifeless for us. If we relate to our bodies as machines, they are machines to us. If we relate to religion as a fantasy, it is a fantasy to us. But if we relate to the natural world as alive, full of spirits and elemental beings, the natural world speaks to us.
If as in tantra, the body is regarded as a divine palace and the result of great good fortune, as the best possible vehicle for reaching enlightenment, it becomes a vehicle that can carry us beyond death. If we relate to the dharma, the spiritual teachings, as to sacred teachings that will lead us on the path to truth, the dharma in fact leads us to truth.
Relating to the elements – to the natural worlds and our bodies and minds – as sacred, they become sacred. This is not just a psychological trick.
It’s a recognition of our real situation.
We are in relationship with everything. That’s what life is – relationship with everything.
Everything is made of the elements: Life is sacred
The third way of practicing with the five elements is Dzogchen, known as The Great Perfection. “The basis of the individual and of all phenomena is inseparable emptiness (tong pa nyid) and luminosity (‘od sal).”
In this section of Healing with Form Energy and Light there are no practices given. Wangyal suggests that working with “the nature of the mind” is best done with a teacher who recognizes it, as this is an area in which it is easy to mistake and mislead ourselves.
The secret dimension of the elements exists beyond duality and is therefore hard to describe with language, which necessarily divides experience into separate objects. This most subtle dimension of the elements is the radiance of being.
Whether or not you are likely to seek out a geshe and begin a Bön style practice, Healing with Form Energy and Light is a treasure of practical guidance for active practitioners who respect other traditions and who also enjoy the fresh perspective an accurate and inviting description of another tradition can bring to the familiar one being practiced.
In his abiding advocacy for our freedon, Tenzin Wangyal spares no effort in reminding us:
The important thing is to understand yourself.
Bring your intelligence to bear on the questions of your own life and apply your insights to improving the quality of your life and the effectiveness of your spiritual practice.
We may publish any content, comments or ideas sent to us.
Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.