Bringing Death Into Clear Light

Lama Karma Wall, Buddhist teacher and lead designer and facilitator of aNUma — a virtual reality experience joining Buddhist principles and technology — talks about how VR can help us relate to the unknown by bringing death into awareness.

By Lama Karma Wall

Mariana Restrepo
Real life overlaid with contemplative virtual reality, as depicted in an aNUma promotional video.

Buddhadharma: What is aNUma, and what are its purposes? 

Lama Karma Wall: aNUma is a company that specializes in creating sacred group experiences in virtual reality (VR) for persons facing a life-threatening diagnosis. The main program we offer is called “Clear Light,” and has two variations. The first is for “Family and Loved Ones” where an individual with a terminal illness will invite loved ones to participate in the seven sessions of the Clear Light Program. The other is a cohort program where the participants have similar health situations and usually don’t know one another to begin with. 

Since impermanence and death are universal, we also work with healthy individuals, giving them an experiential opportunity to explore questions about mortality. Right now, we are working with participants of Andrew Holecek’s “Preparing to Die” program and with psychedelic facilitator trainees at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Science of Psychedelics. 

“aNUma” comes from the term numadelic, coined by one of our co-founders, scientist, and media artist David Glowacki. The word is derived from the Greek words pneuma, meaning “breath,” “spirit,” or “soul,” and delein, meaning “to reveal” or “to manifest,” a result of the fact that numerous participants who have participated in our sessions commented how aNUma reminded them of “spirit” and aspects of subtle embodiment. 

What inspired the aNUma project?

When I was in my first three-year retreat, I heard from my mother that David Glowacki, who is a childhood friend of mine, had fallen thirty meters off of a cliff and nearly died. At that time, he had a near-death experience and saw his body from afar. He has been exploring that experience in various art projects since then to represent how he saw his dying body as a pure energy of awareness, slowly merging with the energetic field all around him. He said he was deeply at peace at that time, and this sense of spaciousness, energy, and awareness really defines the numadelic aesthetic that he developed in VR. The other co-founders, Gregory Roufa and Joe Hardy, joined Dave and began rebuilding his experience as a platform to support VR for therapeutic purposes. I came on a bit after that.

What do you hope this project will accomplish? 

The main intention of the project is to give participants a way to relate to what is otherwise unknown. The first thing is bringing death into awareness, bringing it out as a topic of discussion, and creating a culture that includes death as a part of life. This will reduce fear and create connection where there is otherwise alienation and avoidance. We see this a lot in the Family and Loved Ones sessions we do. They give families (who may be separated by great geographic distances) a chance to have the conversations that they really want to have and might not otherwise be able to approach. Bringing death to the table, decreasing fear, increasing connection—these are the most common intentions. 

“The main intention of the project is to give participants a way to relate to what is otherwise unknown. The first thing is bringing death into awareness, bringing it out as a topic of discussion, and creating a culture that includes death as a part of life.”

How does aNUma incorporate Buddhist practices and traditions of wisdom into its experiential design?

Clear Light is designed to be accessible to anyone regardless of their spiritual beliefs or lack thereof. At the same time, because of my background, the theory and practice of buddhadharma is the main inspiration for the design. There is so much to say about this topic, but at the core is the understanding of the trikaya, the three bodies of the Buddha. 

What we have designed is a simulation of the Sambhogakaya, the pure dimension of subtle form and great exaltation. Many people with chronic pain or persistent mental suffering say that merely by entering the environment, embodying an avatar of a dynamic cloud of energy, floating in a groundless spacescape, they experience relief. 

From this dimension, much like what happens in deity yoga, it is easy to dissolve that formless representation into formless emptiness. Going the other direction, this subtle display of emptiness and form in union can be brought back into the sacred experience of everyday life. What appears is known to be like a benevolent illusion, appearing yet non-existent. I can’t say whether people are experiencing the genuine inseparability of the three kayas, but something wonderful is happening that is at least inspired by this vision. 

A “passthrough” view from within the VR headset, blending the vision of waking life and energetic embodiment. Photo courtesy of aNUma.

Can you talk about how one explores one’s relationship with the physical body in a disembodied experience, such as virtual reality?

Most VR is terribly disembodied. There are several reasons for this, but the main thing is that most VR experiences aim for a photorealistic representation of the “real world.” We are already living in a bubble of our own conceptual habits. As the dharma points out, we are living in and through our concepts, as opposed to the nondual immediacy of pristine experience. So when we go into VR, we are creating a bubble inside of that bubble. This could be skillfully used, but in general, it just makes things worse.  

Instead of trying to represent reality, which perpetuates disembodiment, what we are doing with Clear Light is pointing to a more essential type of embodiment by dissolving conceptual habits of “my body” and “my world.”

This is directly related to what I just mentioned about the trikaya, the three bodies of the Buddha. Embodiment is the central focus of all of our experiences. And there are different dimensions of embodiment, so there are different forms of disembodiment. In general, we are identified with our physical body, and because this physical body is always dying, this identification causes suffering. But this identification is actually a type of reification, it is the conceptual mind creating a solid and stable mental image of our body, which we then use as the basis of “me” and “mine.” So the first step is to move from that mental representation of our body to the direct, lived experience of embodiment. 

With people who have chronic pain and certain types of mental suffering, stepping into the virtual space diminishes this suffering, which has to do with disembodied, representational, self-reflective rumination. Suddenly all of the mental images I have of my body no longer have anything to land on, and I feel a fresh, spacious, and dynamic sense of embodiment. This doesn’t last forever, and the mind begins to create new VR embodiment habits, so we pay a lot of attention to keeping things fresh in this way. 

So by moving from gross disembodiment to subtle embodiment, we can start to loosen conceptual habits. The next challenge is moving beyond identification with subtle embodiment. Just as we can be identified with our gross physical body, creating habitual concepts about that way of being, we can identify with the subtle body, always needing to chase and maintain the next spiritual experience, psychedelic experience, virtual reality experience, etc.

At many points in the Clear Light Program, we dissolve the entire situation, virtual reality erases itself, and we indicate the potential to move from subtle embodiment to formless embodiment. In his Buddhadharma article, “A Wake-Up Call,” Andrew Holecek calls this the “nobody-body,” which is another name of the dharmakaya, the reality body of the Buddha. If this nobody-body is recognized without grasping, it is another form of embodiment. If there is any residue of grasping, it is another type of disembodiment, which is just a state of spacing out. Without an object, the grasping subject simply passes out. It is really interesting to ask people about their experiences of total dissolution in the Clear Light program, and we receive a variety of responses ranging from no comment to no possible comment. 

In a society where technology frequently fosters a superficial sense of connection and social engagement, ultimately leading to increased isolation, how does aNUma’s virtual reality platform promote genuine interconnectedness?

Again, the trikaya is the best way to approach this. I also draw a lot of inspiration from the phenomenological writings of Maurice Merlau-Ponty and, more recently, Francisco Varela. In the context of phenomenology, the mind is both embodied and relational. The interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel says something similar. Embodiment is automatically an interpersonal way of being and knowing. This is true of the Nirmanakaya, it is true of the blissful interpenetrating endlessness of the Sambhogakaya, and it is also true of the Dharmakaya. It may seem that formless emptiness might get kind of lonely, but actually, it is total fullness and total connection—unmanifest yet always already fulfilled. We  point to this in one of the dissolution scenes in Clear Light, where the circle of participants joins hands and dissolves together. Union is only possible through dissolution, otherwise we just keep bumping up against one another and calling it love!

More pointedly, the anonymity afforded by appearing as an energy body actually fosters intimacy, both with people who have decades of baggage with one another, and with people who have never met. People see one another’s essence, rather than their conceptual overlays. And, of course, being able to share the same intimate space, regardless of geography, is a huge asset. I have often thought how precious it could have been for people dying in quarantine during Covid to be able to meet their loved ones, not only to connect, but to touch a sense of basic goodness.   

Can you talk about how aNuma incorporates aspects of the Six Dharmas of Naropa, such as illusory body, dream yoga, clear light yoga, and bardo yoga into its design?

Except for one scene, these practices are not made explicit. In the exception, participants witness the descent of a white diaphanous sphere and the ascent of a red sphere. At the same time, each participant slowly falls into the center of the space where the red and white clouds coalesce. It is a simulation of the moment of conception, as presented in bardo yoga, but it could just as easily be part of clear light yoga, tummo, and the basis of the pure form of illusory body practice. But again, it is presented in a way that is simply engaging and beautiful, without any particular metaphysical context. 

I think the benefit of what we have developed is that it is working on a deeply intuitive and symbolic level of embodiment that is parallel in many ways to the approach of the Six Dharmas, so there are many organic points of contact. We are not practicing illusory body, but what we are doing is very similar to the way impure illusory body practice works. We are not practicing dream yoga, but simply being in VR has been shown to increase lucidity in dreams. We are not practicing clear light yoga, but many of the sixteen types of clear light experiences that Taranatha (Jonang lama, 1575–1634) mentions in his commentary (Tangdalma) on the Six Dharmas of Niguma bear resemblance to aspects of aNUma’s Clear Light design.  

We named our program “Clear Light” to point to the continuity of luminosity across the various states of consciousness: sleep, dream, waking life, conception, dying, and the period between death and conception. Just as with the Six Dharmas, and tantra in general, the point is not to become a great practitioner of the yogic methods themselves, but to discover the underlying continuity of luminosity, and thereby go beyond limitation in benefiting others. In the same way, it’s not about the VR technology or the experiences afforded by it, but hopefully, there is a space of insight and connection that opens that can benefit our participants in this life and beyond.

Lama Karma Wall

Lama Karma Wall is a teacher in the Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and the director of the Milarepa Retreat Center in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. He is also the lead designer and facilitator for aNUma , a company bringing sacred group experiences in virtual reality to persons with terminal illness.

Mariana Restrepo

Mariana Restrepo is deputy editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar). She is Colombian with a Nyingma-Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist background, has an MA in Religious Studies, and currently lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two children.