In recent years, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche has become well known as one of the foremost teachers of Tibetan Buddhist practices for emotional healing and well-being. A noted scholar and translator, he has published several books on Tibetan Buddhism, and his recent titles, The Healing Power of Mind (Shambhala, 1998) and Boundless Healing (Shambhala, 2000), have gained wide attention and praise from Western psychologists and spiritual practitioners alike. In the following conversation, Tulku Thondup explores with us the problem of suﬀering, speciﬁcally how to work with diﬃcult emotional states. He spoke with Inquiring Mind editors Wes Nisker and Barbara Gates this past fall.
Inquiring Mind: As a teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, how would you deﬁne dukkha?
Tulku Thondup: First of all, the Buddha did not just teach that existence is suﬀering. That is a widespread misconception that gives rise to the image of Buddhism as pessimistic. In fact, Buddhism is anything but that. The Buddha taught us how to ﬁnd peace and release ourselves from our suﬀering not by going to some faraway place but by meditating wherever we may be. According to the Buddha’s teaching, we are all Buddha. We all have Buddha nature, which means our true nature is peace, great joy and freedom. It means that in our minds we have the seeds that can bring us to full enlightenment. The only reason we suﬀer is due to our dualistic habits—our minds are always grasping and creating negative, aﬄicting emotions. That obscures our true nature, just like the clouds obscure the sun, thus causing us to suﬀer. So right now we may be in dukkha, or suﬀering, but it’s just a temporary, changing and treatable condition.
Actually, in Buddhism there are three distinct kinds of dukkha. The first is ordinary dukkha—suﬀering that comes from things like pain, sadness, worry and insecurity. This is the “suﬀering of suﬀering.” Second is the “suﬀering of happiness.” This sounds like a contradiction, but temporary happiness carries within it the seeds of pain because it is going to end. This means that our happiness is not truly satisfying, not lasting and ultimately causes us distress. We could actually call this the “dukkha of change.” Third is the “all-pervasive dukkha.” Even our so-called happiest feelings are painful compared to the incomparable joy of the great peace of enlightenment. In the end, the feelings of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral are all subject to change, so none of them are beyond suﬀering.
IM: What you seem to be saying is that all experience is subject to suﬀering.
TT: Yes, but only when we live with a dualistic mind, a grasping and craving mentality. But this is not what the truth is. As the Buddha teaches, we must ﬁrst see the causes of dukkha. Only then can we overcome them. The important thing is to start from where we are and recognize that we are in dukkha. Otherwise we won’t be motivated to get to where we want to go. In my book The Healing Power of Mind, I also tell people to see dukkha as a blessing from the Buddha, which inspires us to awaken. If you can see dukkha as positive, then instead of being depressed by your problems you will see them as a great teacher. The sages say that while it is hard for us to turn happiness into the path of enlightenment, it is easy to turn suﬀering into that path.
IM: You’ve been teaching in America and the West for a number of years now. Do you notice that Westerners have a unique form of suﬀering that might be a little diﬀerent from that of Asian people?
TT: I think Westerners have more of the suﬀering that comes from pleasant feelings, the suﬀering of happiness. That kind of suﬀering comes from a lot of grasping after more and more pleasant experiences. Here in America you have a lot more opportunities for grasping at pleasure. [Laughter] In some countries, because of the hardships of famine and war, lack of food and health care, or lack of freedom, people mostly experience the dukkha of unpleasant feelings.
IM: Several Asian Buddhist teachers have commented that Westerners suﬀer more from self-judgment than people from the East. They ﬁnd that we have more of a sense of personal inferiority and shame than Asians.
TT: I think that may be true. But this kind of suﬀering can also become a source of strength if you recognize and use it skillfully. Suﬀering is an important teacher, and self-criticism can be a very useful tool for our enlightenment. Otherwise it is just a torture device. As Buddhists, we must try to use whatever arises as a part of the path.
IM: Describe how you would go about transforming suﬀering into a tool of enlightenment.
TT: In my new book, Boundless Healing, I try to address that clearly. First of all, we must see and accept the sickness in the body or the sadness in the mind; we see them and feel them completely, acknowledging our problems. We then apply a healing method, using light, sound, blessings of the Buddha or prayers of the dharma. These can transform the unhealthy body or mind into one of peace, joy and strength. We can then heal our ills because we are using the four healing powers of our mind—positive images, words, feelings and trust.
IM: Are the exercises in your books from the Tantric Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism?
TT: No. If they had come from the Vajrayana, then they could be used only by someone who has received empowerment from a teacher. While my inspiration for these healing exercises came from my Vajrayana background, I knew I couldn’t oﬀer those speciﬁc Tantric practices to the general public. So I began to look in the Mahayana sutras and found the basis for very similar practices. These healing exercises can be practiced by anyone who takes simple refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha. Whoever has faith in them has taken refuge. Since one of the three levels of faith is liking, if you like the Buddha, dharma and sangha, then you are qualiﬁed to practice the Mahayana healing exercises.
Although the healing powers I oﬀer are almost identical to those taught in the Vajrayana tradition, I do not instruct people to focus on chakras or channels. I try to guide people to experience positive energies, blissful heat in every boundless cell of the body, so that the whole body becomes a boundless field of pleasant, healing sensations. Using chakras or channels is a great training in awakening powerful energies. But they are dangerous if you don’t know how to handle them.
IM: Some people might question these practices as being a rejection of what is actually present.
TT: But that is not the case. For instance, in the Mahayana sutras, I found a passage describing how everything in the universe is made out of ﬁve elements, and that each of these elements is a diﬀerent spectrum of light. This is not a mystical vision; physics says very similar things. So when we visualize our body as a body of light, we are not making something up. Matter is energy. Light is everywhere, in everything.
IM: What if your healing techniques are failing? For instance, if you are working with people trying to heal the body, say a cancer patient, and even though this person is wholehearted in their meditations, their body continues to fail. How can you prevent people from turning on themselves with guilt or blame for not being able to heal themselves?
TT: It is important to teach people, first of all, to enjoy the meditation itself. If you are doing this exercise with the healing energies generated by the meditation, then no matter what happens, you will beneﬁt in one way or another. If you are too focused on healing a particular problem, you will have a very limited view of the success or failure of the practice. Remember, the healing is not just physical but also mental. Furthermore, you cannot heal everything: we all have to get sick; we have to die; our bodies have to dissolve into the elements. That is part of life. So people may not always heal themselves. The main purpose of these meditations is to bring people feelings of peace, joy and warmth. That way, even if the body doesn’t heal, the meditator will ﬁnd new energy and strength to deal with whatever suﬀering he or she is going through.
IM: Can these practices of energy transformation and healing lead people to experiences of non-duality or self-liberation?
TT: Although the twelve-stage meditation that I oﬀer is not necessarily intended to lead people to the non-dual state as vipassana and dzogchen teachings are, the meditations could still lead a person there if they are ready.
For example, while doing this twelve-stage meditation, people have told me, “I feel more spacious,” “I feel more peaceful,” “I feel more energy.” I tell them that at those moments they should become one with those feelings. Merge with that peace, that space, that positive energy. Not unconsciously, but with total awareness. So the twelfth stage of the meditation could lead to the non-dual state.
I’d also like to add that through these healing meditations, we can improve our future lives and help heal the whole universe. In the meditations, we see and feel every cell in our body as a cell of light. Each cell of light is as boundless as the universe. Every boundless cell is ﬁlled with healing energies, blissful heat. When we begin to feel this, then every breath of every cell becomes a wave of healing energy. We could also see those boundless cells as the Buddha “Pure Lands.” Then our body becomes inﬁnite Buddha Pure Lands, and everything that happens in our life becomes a cycle of Buddha activities.
The meditation may or may not heal your cancer cells, but it will bring peace and joy to you and to the lives of everyone around you. Furthermore, when the time of death comes and all phenomena are changing in front of us, if we have done these practices, then we won’t become frightened by the images and sounds we will experience. We will have developed the mental habit of seeing and feeling all phenomena as part of the Pure Land of Buddha. So dukkha is not our trademark. Peace is.