Lama Tsultrim Allione, Rob Preece, and Acharya Gaylon Ferguson discuss their individual relationships with nonmaterial realized beings and the purpose of including them in your practice. Introduction by Lama Rod Owens.
I have never felt alone. I have always felt touched by an unseen world; the world of ghosts, spirits, demons, and angels has dwelled at times as close as a hand’s length, at others as far as a galaxy away. I understood as a child that these two worlds maintain a precious balance, that they are continually rubbing up against one another. I knew people with psychic ability who could see and talk to spirits. It was a gift I yearned to have.
I grew up in the Black church in the South. My upbringing was rich in mythologies passed down from our African and slave ancestors. Though we rarely talked about them, we intuitively knew we were inhabiting a world with many different reflections. Even in the context of a colonizing Christianity that my ancestors were forced to buy into, significant portions of our African mythologies trickled down into our churches.
When we spoke of the “spirit moving” it felt like we were experiencing a kind of possession. The way people moved, shouted, jostled, eyes rolling back into their heads, speaking in tongues was communion with and expression of the unseen world, a connection with nonmaterial beings. It was also a method for releasing the energy of trauma accumulated through the impact of systematic oppression.
Through these experiences, I learned at an early age not only that there are unseen forces around us but also that we can enter into dialogue with them. So much of my yearning as a child was to find strategies for communicating with this world and with the beings that inhabit it. I didn’t want to be afraid or in denial, as some around me were. I wanted to be empowered. I think it was a feeling of being helpless that spurred me into thinking about embracing the ways of communication I had learned in my community. But it wasn’t until I began practicing dharma that I felt I, too, could communicate with these beings—and that they would listen.
As I speak to the deity, I am speaking to my ultimate nature.
Vajrayana Buddhism gave me permission to sopenly develop a relationship with this unseen world. And it gave me a language to express it. Yet nonmaterial enlightened beings are not limited to the Vajrayana tradition. Their world is the place of dharma protectors, yidams, and enlightened dakas and dakinis, but it is also the realm of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. These are the beings who express their commitment to help us achieve enlightenment. Though we call them beings, they are none other than reflections of our own innate wisdom, our own basic mind, our buddhanature. And just as it can be difficult to recognize and abide in our true nature, it can be difficult to recognize these beings who are expressed from our true nature. Many of the rituals—prayers, chanting, fire pujas, meditations, and contemplations—are skillful means to bring us into direct dialogue with them. From this dialogue, we understand that we are not alone, that we are being guided and protected.
Several years ago, at the beginning of my practice, a lama offered a poignant teaching on the female buddha Tara. She said she related to Tara as a girlfriend she could simply speak out to. The practice of speaking to Tara in this way, or to any deity, has become the core of my deity practice. In essence, as I speak to the deity, I am speaking to my ultimate nature.
As I deepen in my practice and tradition, I find myself recalling my early years in church. In particular, I am reminded that I have the agency to initiate a connection to a world that, to most, remains unseen. I am reminded that this connection is as simple as remembering these beings are there and listening. —Lama Rod Owens
Buddhadharma: First, let’s clarify what we mean by nonmaterial realized beings. How would you describe them?
Lama Tsultrim Allione: I think there are certain levels of them, and different kinds. I would describe them as beings in a dimension of luminosity, essentially the sambhogakaya, which is the dimension of light beings. In my experience, they’re not just made up; at the same time, I can’t prove they exist. And at a certain level, they are an aspect of our own buddhanature.
Rob Preece: The danger with the term “nonmaterial realized beings” is that it could suggest entities that have some kind of autonomy, like gods. I tend to orient toward a sense of these nonmaterial beings as emanations of buddha activity rather than as autonomous entities. Opening to those beings or qualities is part of my relationship to the presence of them. Even though to an ordinary mind they’re invisible, they can be there as a presence. There’s a very powerful energetic presence that is part of that emanation capacity, that buddha quality.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: I resonate with the sense of connection with radiance, the radiant field of awakened being. The key point is the practitioner’s experience of these realms. Traditionally there is a threefold classification of these kinds of beings known as the three roots: the enlightened lineage gurus and vajra masters, awakened beings present in nirmanakaya in a human form; the yidams, forms of awakened beings in the sambhogakaya and dharmakaya realms; and embodiments of power and compassion called “protectors,” who remind us when we’re straying from the path of wakefulness or encourage us to go in certain directions.
There’s a question of how we should talk about this so we’re not reducing it or turning these beings into superhero cartoons but rather are paying proper respect to the sacredness of this realm. At the same time, for those of us who grew up with a worldview that says the ordinary senses define the limits of what’s real, we’re trying to bridge these dimensions and make them understandable.
Buddhadharma: Perhaps we can try to clarify where these beings exist. It’s hard not to want to imagine them as having in a location in space. Could you speak to how we should envision that location or that realm?
Rob Preece: The presence of enlightened qualities, or activity of enlightened qualities, is pervasive, and when those qualities come into form, so to speak, it has to do with our relationship. There is a relational process going on here. Buddha activity is manifesting a certain quality—for example, the quality of universal compassion. When I begin to come into a relationship with that, I may give it a relative appearance, a form, like the deity. It then becomes more localized in terms of my awareness, but I’m not sure I would necessarily say they have locations or that these beings have pure realms where one could visit them. Personally, I’m not quite sure how I relate to that.
Lama Tsultrim Allione: I had that question for years: do they have ontological existence apart from my beliefs? For long time I thought they didn’t, that they were only archetypes that embodied certain qualities, which then brought forth those qualities in my consciousness through meditating on them. With Tara, if I saw her as the embodiment of all the qualities of compassionate activity, then by visualizing myself as her, I would bring forth those same qualities in me. But I’ve had experiences in my life that have made me question that. My experiences with yidams, or deities, have led me to believe that they do have an independent existence, as much as anything else does from a Buddhist point of view. I didn’t used to believe in pure lands either, but then in practice, I’ve had the experience of going to those places. I had a near-death experience in Tibet in which I went into a dakini-dimension pure land.
So I think my overarching answer is that the level of awareness these beings are at is very different from ours, unless we’re really in a deep state of practice. We can try to fit them into our conception of place, but I don’t think it quite works that way.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: The words “experience” and “practice” are prominent here. Practitioners have had experiences, realized beings have had experiences, and the question of location within space and time takes us down a road that goes more toward philosophy and ontology and away from practice and experience. We might ask: where is compassion located? Or where is joy located? In this society and culture, we say those are psychological states, and I do think psychology is probably the most useful secular bridge for what we’re talking about here. The word “archetype” is often used, but when we say these beings are actually archetypal aspects of mind or aspects of the psyche, we don’t mean aspects of the ordinary dualistic mind or the conventional ego psyche. We mean something much larger and vaster: our awakened mind, the awakened being that we actually are. Tara and her compassion are not separate from the ground of our being. A useful reference here is a commentary by Thinley Norbu Rinpoche called A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar, which skillfully and compassionately takes apart the assumption that only space-time perception in the ordinary, conventional empirical sense is really real.
Buddhadharma: If we’re not able to see or touch them, how do we know when we’re in relationship with these nonmaterial beings?
Lama Tsultrim Allione: I’ve had different experiences of these beings over the years. The latest one was in Bhutan last November. I was climbing up to Taksang (Tiger’s Nest), the famous pilgrimage place there, and I started to get really exhausted and dizzy. It’s quite an intense climb. I was with about sixty people, my students mainly, and our guide suggested I go to Machig Labdrön’s cave instead, which was on the way and not as difficult. She was a teacher in Tibet in the eleventh century and I have a strong karmic connection with her.
So everyone else went to Taksang and I went to Machig’s cave. I just sat there and thought, well, I probably have a couple of hours to meditate here. Then all of a sudden, there was a palpable presence of Machig Labdrön. It was as though my body was imbued with bliss and emptiness at the same time, and then she was there, this kind of white-light presence in front of me. It was her form, but it didn’t look like what you’d see in a Tibetan thangka. She looked like a white-light being, and she transmitted certain teachings to me, a very specific meditation working with the channels and winds of the subtle body for longevity, which I wrote down. It was all so intense—certainly as intense as any human encounter I have ever had. Now when I do this practice she gave me, I recall sitting in that cave. I kind of go back there and find her again, through that gate. I think that’s the power and importance of pilgrimage. These pilgrimage places are like gateways into these other dimensions; that’s why we go there and practice there.
Rob Preece: There is something for me about how I align or attune myself to a particular emanation or manifestation of these beings. If I can open myself to that—and this could happen through meditation or when I’m teaching or in different locations where I find a gateway—something very definite begins to come through that is out of the ordinary. There are a number of ways I experience that. One is a felt sense—my body and my whole being become awakened to something, or there’s some sort of vibration in my nervous system that begins to wake up or is activated. It can be quite extraordinary, blissful, and inspiring.
The more I can get out of the way, the more that seems to happen.
It’s an energetic process, and for me it’s often accompanied by some kind of vision. Would I say that vision is through my eyes? No, I don’t think so. For me, it’s more like an inner vision. It may not always be clear, but there’s a real sense of light appearance manifesting. I tune into it and I receive something from that, and often it fills me with a sense of devotion and awe. When I open to that, I find myself being a vehicle for it in some way—often this happens when I’m teaching. That alignment feels important to me. If I can open to that, then I receive some kind of communication, and the relationship is opening, the bridge is opening, the gateway is opening. The more I can get out of the way—get out of my ordinary sense of identity and ego—the more that seems to happen.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: I think it’s important to make the link between what we’re discussing in terms of our experiences of these beings within the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition—the tantric Buddhist lineages—and other Buddhist traditions. Whether or not it’s formally taught as a set of practices and sadhanas, I would guess that the experience of these aspects of being is also found in many other traditions.
When we take refuge, we sometimes say “I take refuge in the dharma, what’s been told and what’s been realized,” lung and tok in Tibetan. Lung refers to authoritative words—in some cases, the words of the Buddha—handed down to us for generations and generations. In Tibetan Vajrayana, these experiences that we’re talking about would in many cases be based on one’s devotion to one’s teacher. My teacher introduced me to a particular sadhana, or my teacher was at Taksang, and so members of the sangha make pilgrimage to Taksang. It’s part of the authentic lineage transmission in a way.
On the realization side, tok means experiences. In many traditions we practice lovingkindness, metta or maitri. When you walk into a room with someone who has actually realized lovingkindness, you feel a radiance. There’s a felt sense that this person is actually being lovingkindness. Similarly, to give an example from the Zen tradition, when one is with a roshi who has practiced shikantaza, formless zazen, for many years, one might experience a sense of vastness. That, to me, is similar to what we’re talking about—the experience of places, teachers, a field of some kind of radiance. This kind of experience can be found in early Buddhist lineages as well as the Mahayana tradition.
The teacher is not just that human being who walked into the room; the teacher has a vaster dimension as well. So when you go into solitary retreat or go on pilgrimage, that’s all part of your devotional relationship—you’re growing closer to the real meaning of devotion, its formless aspect. In most of our cases a human being introduced us to this realm by her presence, which then continues beyond, even once you leave the room.
Rob Preece: I suppose in that sense, we could say that these nonmaterial realized beings are part of what comes through, or maybe they are the primary thing that comes through. Something about that relationship opens a teacher to a quality that manifests when they’re teaching.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: Yes, the ceremony of abhisheka, or empowerment, or in Tibetan, wang, is about exactly what you’re talking about.
Rob Preece: For me the question is, how do I make that alignment or that opening? In the Tibetan tradition, there is something about the way in which those deities act as a kind of window or gateway. The metaphor that often comes to mind is that of a stained-glass window in a church. When there’s no sunlight coming through, it may appear two-dimensional and a bit drab, but as soon as the light comes through, it lights up. Part of the point of the deity is that it is a vehicle or channel for something to come through; it offers us a way to make that connection to the source, to dharmakaya.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: From that point of view, the only way to understand what we’re talking about is through practice. We’re not going to figure this out intellectually.
Lama Tsultrim Allione: I really like that. Let’s say there’s the entity of Tara and that she’s kind of like a TV station that’s constantly beaming out into the universe. She’s always transmitting, always emanating, but if our own TV isn’t turned on and tuned to that channel, we don’t get the signal. Transmission is actually giving us the right channel, or a specific channel.
Buddhadharma: Once we tune in, what happens? This seems like a good time to unpack what we mean by “blessings” in Buddhism. It feels relevant to this discussion, but it’s also a word that could easily be construed in the Christian sense of a god bestowing blessings.
Lama Tsultrim Allione: That’s a word I’ve thought about a lot. In Tibetan, it’s jyin lab [pronounced “chinlab”], which literally means “gift wave.” Jyin is “giving,” and lap is “wave.” I had a really interesting experience with a Tibetan lama who is a siddha, which means he has powers. One of his powers is imprinting his handprint or footprint into rock. This is something I’d heard about in Tibet. You’ll see a footprint when you’re on pilgrimage in Tibet and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s Yeshe Tsogyal’s footprint.” I was always somewhat suspicious of that, but then this siddha came to Tara Mandala and he made one of these handprints.
I had given him a stone and said, “I’ve heard that you do this. It would be a great blessing to have something like that here, from you.” One day after lunch, he was in a kind of altered state. He was singing Dzogchen poetry in Tibetan, and he said it would be good to gather those who have faith. So I went to our outdoor kitchen and tried to figure out who had faith (laughs). Twenty people or so came, and he said it would be good if they did prostrations, so everyone did three prostrations. He had the stone in his hand, and he was just singing this poetry, and then all of a sudden he pronounced the seed syllable “PHET” loudly and pressed his thumb into this stone. It went in pretty far, maybe a quarter of an inch into the rock; it was like it was butter. You could see the whorls of his fingers. He said to me, “I want to give this to you, but I want to keep it for a few days and put the blessings into it.”
For me that was really interesting because I thought, “Well, isn’t that enough blessings already?” Another time, he took a rough stone and rolled it into a ball, like a dough ball, and said, “I’m going to keep this for a few days, too, and put the blessings into it.” So that gave me a clue that blessings are a kind of substance that can be put into things. Blessings can be given to people and objects, and they can also be imbued into places that then become sacred pilgrimage sites. I realized after my experience with him, it’s not just that these are places where certain people have meditated—it’s more than that. There is actually a field of energy that has been imbued into a place or a person or an object.
Buddhadharma: What would be the benefit of coming into contact with, for example, that stone that you’re describing?
Lama Tsultrim Allione: Well, you would get blessings. It could be healing or an enhancement for your practice, like a blast of blessing energy into your mindstream. These are nonmaterial things we’re talking about, so it’s hard to describe exactly what they are in words.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: I’m noticing that we’re all emphasizing the nontheistic nature of this. We’re not talking about an external deity who confers blessings on a lesser human being. The word jyin lap in Tibetan does often get translated as “blessing,” but I’ve heard some translators say it literally means “waves of splendor,” which is interesting. These waves of splendor are able to change our outlook from conventional dualistic perception into “sacred outlook,” or pure perception, dak nang in Tibetan. This is really the essence of Vajrayana, the realization of sacredness. In The Life of Marpa, for instance, the spiritual biography of Marpa the translator, Marpa says, “Being with such-and-such a guru will change one’s outlook from the conventional dualistic sense of ‘I’m here and that thing is over there’ to an outlook of sacredness.” So the benefit of receiving these waves of sacredness is that one’s outlook shifts from the ordinary one of grasping and confusion and aggression to one of appreciation of the phenomenal world, other beings, and life itself. This radiating sacredness reminds us of the sacredness that’s already here, which we often don’t see or miss. That’s the purpose of receiving blessings.
Rob Preece: The word that comes to my mind around this is “energy.” It connects with the notion of sambhogakaya as a kind of vitality in our process of awakening, an energy in our awakening. There’s something about the opening process—receiving that energy as an uplifting, inspiring, invigorating, or illuminating quality—that can come through the channel of a relationship with these invisible realized beings. Objects or places can become imbued with this blessing, and so can we.
I’m a thangka painter, and in the process of painting a thangka, it’s as though I’m beginning to open a certain doorway that doesn’t fully open until the last part in which you “open the eyes.” When I paint the pupil and the iris it’s as though I’ve suddenly opened the eyes—they’re awake, looking at me. It’s an amazing moment. What I find extraordinary is that when I open the eyes and invite the deity into that thangka, I begin to feel the presence as a kind of blessing. From then on, that thangka is imbued with something others can receive and be inspired and uplifted by. I work with someone who is a Christian, and the word that she often uses is “spirit.” Increasingly, I think maybe we’re talking about the same experience here. We use different language, but there’s some energetic process that comes through when we receive that.
Buddhadharma: In addition to the traditional presentation and teachings surrounding deities, there’s also a more secular and psychological interpretation that these nonmaterial realized beings are, in fact, within us, that these are actually our innate qualities being awakened. How are we to understand the relationship between these beings and these awakened qualities?
Lama Tsultrim Allione: There are two terms that we haven’t brought up yet that I think would be helpful: samayasattva and jnanasattva. Jnanasattva means “wisdom beings” and samayasattva means “pledge beings.” The samayasattva is the visualization the practitioner creates, and it relates to our fundamental buddhanature. Let’s say I’m doing a Tara practice. I sound her seed syllable, “TAM,” the sound frequency of Tara, and from that I create the visualization of her and visualize that I become Tara. That is samayasattva. But my visualization of myself as Tara is just samayasattva and is not yet imbued with the energy frequency of her wisdom energy; it’s just my idea or concept of Tara that comes from the description in the texts and the blessings of having received transmission for the practice.
As a normal human being, we operate at a certain energy frequency, and what we’re trying to do is attune ourselves to a more refined, luminous, compassionate, open, vast energy frequency, and the vehicle for that is the samayasattva. Plus in Vajrayana, you always have lineage, and you’ve had the empowerment into the particular deity practice you are doing. That creates the ability to link with the jnanasattva energy field.
You could say you actually go through an entire lifetime as the deity, from birth to death, during each sadhana practice.
So I would then send light out as the samayasattva and invite the blessings and wisdom from the jnanasattva—in this case the wisdom level of Tara—to come into me as the samayasattva I’ve created. Only at that point is one actually “alive as the deity,” so to speak; one becomes the deity. As the samayasattva Tara, you send the light out and invite the wisdom being energy of Tara in. Then jnanasattva and samayasattva join together, and you are now transformed through the visualization into the deity, in this case Tara. You could say you actually go through an entire lifetime as the deity, from birth to death, during each sadhana practice, because at the beginning you are born as the deity, and then at the end you dissolve the whole visualization and rest in emptiness.
Rob Preece: I’d like to bring into this the recognition that we each have buddhanature, buddha potential. If we’re talking about Tara, the latency of that Tara potential is in our nature right now. It just needs to be woken up. So part of the jnanasattva and samayasattva process is making that link between the wisdom being and our own innate nature. In visualizing ourselves as Tara, or opening to the connection to Tara, we’re also waking up what’s in our system already. We are beginning to make the connection so that our experience is awoken and imbued with that wisdom quality of the buddhas.
Buddhadharma: Is there a range of practices that people take up in order to cultivate this relationship with a deity? Or is visualization really at the heart of it?
Rob Preece: I guess for a lot of us, the place where we first come in contact with these practices is in some sort of guided meditation process, such as a visualization or initiation. I don’t think that’s the only way we might begin to open up our relationship; in some respects, you could say that just seeing a thangka and having some strong resonance with it begins to open the relationship, but there’s no doubt that visualization practice is one of the main ways in which that starts to awaken. Because of the complexity of those practices that enable us to make connection, that’s also where we as Westerners sometimes encounter challenges. It’s not always straightforward.
What Lama Tsultrim described about the visualization process is central to what are called sadhana practices, or sadhana, which could loosely be translated as a means or method of accomplishment.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: Yes, the visualizations and mantras of sadhanas are a “means of realization.”
Rob Preece: That’s very often the way that we begin to cultivate the relationship. There are various rituals, prayers, mantras, and so on within that. In terms of my own practice, having started at a time when most of this was done in Tibetan, I had to translate that into English and then try and do the visualizations at the same time, which was all very difficult. As a Westerner, over the years I’ve had to simplify that and try and enter into a relationship with those practices in a more embodied way.
Buddhadharma: In addition to simplifying, can these practices also be adapted for modern cultures? For example, the deities are usually depicted using traditional Indian and Tibetan iconography. Is it important for Western practitioners to visualize the deities in their traditional forms or is there room for these images to be adapted to different cultures?
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: Traditional samayasattva and jnanasattva—let’s call it “practice with form”—are always inseparable from a formless aspect of sadhana practice. That formless aspect of the relationship with this presence isn’t just about visualizing, iconography, and so on. The essence of those forms is something formless. And that formlessness is continually, experientially radiating as Mother Tara and all kinds of compassionately awake beings.
Lama Tsultrim Allione: If we go back to the structure of a sadhana practice, it begins with emptiness as well, so at the start of any sadhana you have a moment of recognition that whatever is going to be born, the experience of the deity is coming out of emptiness, the twofold emptiness of self and phenomena. All Vajrayana practice is based on and inseparable from the realization of twofold emptiness of self and phenomena, and that should be a felt experience, not just a conceptual experience. When we received this instruction from Trungpa Rinpoche, he emphasized sitting for maybe ten minutes before beginning the practice of creating the samayasattva and inviting the jnanasattva, and so on. That’s the ground from which all this arises. Then at the end, in the perfecting stage, it all dissolves back into emptiness. There’s a resting at that point, an experience that is a result of the whole process that you’ve just been through of attuning to those invisible beings, drawing them into yourself, activating their blessings and energy in your own body, and then dissolving all that back into where you started—emptiness.
In higher stages of Tibetan practice, that resting at the end is developed into the subtle body practices of yogic tantra. There’s the kyerim, which is the arising or visualization process, and then dzogrim, which is the perfecting or completion. The way you could see it is that the fabric in which all this takes place is vast expanse, longchen, and also this lifetime of being the deity in which you infuse your coarse body with this more refined, luminous, empty quality from sambhogakaya. And then you rest in the result of having gone through that process; you’re not doing anything more. There’s an experience of just resting at the end.
Rob Preece: There is something about these three kayas we’ve been touching on that is a constant play of movement from nonduality and very subtle, formless dharmakaya, into energy and dynamic vitality through sambhogakaya and the deity, and also into embodiment in the nirmanakaya. That dynamic is happening moment to moment. We are like a lightning conductor continually bringing it to ground and opening to the space within which it arises and manifests. For me, that feels like one of the most extraordinary creative and alive experiences we can have.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: Embodied presence is also very important. It’s not just visualizing—which we can think of as imagination, in some way, and perhaps remains too mental—but it’s also somatic. The mandala of these presences—what surrounds them, that sense of openness to sacredness in our everyday life—is compassionate activity. It’s not about “Did I have that experience?” Rather it’s “How is this showing up in being, in bodhisattva activity?”
Buddhadharma: This practice seems to require, at least at the start, a significant leap of faith. What advice do you have for someone who’s new to this, who doesn’t have any frame of reference for relating to something like a nonmaterial realized being? How does someone take up this kind of practice if they’re still holding on to some kind of doubt?
Lama Tsultrim Allione: Generally, faith implies a sort of theistic faith in something, but the way I understand faith is that it is simply openness. What I suggest to people who are new and entering into this kind of practice is that they be open—open their field of energy, their field of awareness, to the possibility of this connection. I’m not saying you have to believe in it. If we go back to that analogy of turning on the TV, if you don’t turn it on, there’s no way you’ll ever receive that channel. So I would describe that openness as turning on the TV. You open to the possibility of attuning to these nonmaterial realized beings or energies.
The other piece that I think is important is transmission. These practices don’t exist in isolation. You wouldn’t go get a book and just start doing it. You could be introduced to it in that way, but a very important part of Vajrayana is transmission through the lama, the vajra master. That means you have that link with another human being who’s had that link with another human being. At some point, the original human being had the link with the sambhogakaya and transmitted that down through lineage.
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: Doubt is part of the path. These practices are transmitted within the context of a human relationship to a teacher, a Vajrayana guru or tantric master. Another word that should be mentioned in talking about these things is danger. There’s a dangerous aspect in not being properly authorized or going into the deep end of the pool before undertaking the preliminary practices to prepare oneself. We need to develop that human relationship of trust and bring up all of our questions and doubts and use those to come to some kind of clarity about commitment. Like any human relationship, there are stages of questioning, like, “Will I marry this person or not?” And, “Is it a good idea to go forward with this?” Then at a certain point, there is that formal commitment that allows transmission to take place.
Buddhadharma: What if you have doubts about the very existence of nonmaterial realized beings?
Acharya Gaylon Ferguson: “Nonmaterial” as a preface to “realized being” makes it sound like human life doesn’t normally depend on nonmaterial aspects, but in fact it does, all the time and in ordinary ways. The love of a mother for her child is not material, but it shows up in how she nourishes the child, how she provides food for the child, and so forth. There, the unmanifest shows up in the many manifestations of care. So you begin with openness in the relationship with the teacher. There may be questions about that, but you also feel the immense compassion and kindness being offered. That’s a feeling we have. Faith is not entirely different from the feelings we have in the rest of our human relationships. It’s not something rarefied and exotic and so different from other things that go on all the time in our lives. This is intimate practice.
Rob Preece: I’m going to have to be a little bit Jungian here. One of the things I notice is that, for a lot of people who find themselves in this kind of territory, there’s been some crisis of calling. Maybe there’s been a breaking down of ego-centeredness within a person’s life and they feel a yearning for something that touches a deeper place. Often it’s uncomfortable and unnerving. It’s the “crack where the light gets in” kind of experience—a breaking. Something breaks down and we begin to open up. It’s in that process that we begin to open ourselves to connection with something that resonates very deeply, quite naturally, because we’re open to receiving it; we’re open to making the connection. Something in us yearns to make that connection. And it shifts from being “I’m just going to have faith in it” to a deep resonance of knowing. It may start with being given some explanation about certain practices, but if they start to touch us, it’s no longer just faith. It’s that we know something resonates because it’s luminous; it touches a place in us that we’ve been yearning for.
Lama Tsultrim Allione: There are many different ways to begin to open to the possibility of receiving blessings from nonmaterial realized beings. For me, this came when I first went to Nepal and sat in the temples and meditated while the monks were doing pujas. I was nineteen and from New Hampshire; I had no clue about Buddhism, so I just closed my eyes and opened my mind and heart. Practicing openness and attunement to different energies is the beginning. This could happen in nature, or at a temple or pilgrimage place, or in your own sitting practice. It can also take place in the presence of a great teacher, someone who becomes a kind of gateway to more subtle presences.