Resting In Luminosity

Lama Karma Wall on how the practice of clear light (osel) yoga can help us recognize the luminous nature of our mind free from dualistic conceptualization.

By Lama Karma Wall

Photo by Parrish Freeman.

A friend recently remarked to me how amazing it was that her baby, no matter how far or in what direction they might roll during the night, always seemed to maintain at least one point of contact with her mother’s body. This is something I am sure many parents can relate to, and it is a common experience of young lovers as well, eager to remain in contact, even in unconsciousness. 

This thread of constant contact, the thread of continuity, is at the heart of tantra (Tibetan: gyu; meaning continuity). A common synonym for this continuity is “luminosity” (Sanskrit: prabhasvara; Tibetan: osel), also translated as “clear light” and “luminous clarity.” The concept of luminosity can be traced from the earliest Buddhist sources through its development in classical India, and into the later refinements of Buddhist tantric theory and practice in Tibet.  

As part of the path of the Six Dharmas of Naropa, “clear light yoga” or “luminosity yoga” refers to the practice of recognizing the luminous emptiness of deep, dreamless sleep. Normally deep sleep is a state of complete blackout. But through practice, one is able to rest in the nonconceptual nature of mind in the midst of deep sleep. At this point, an experience of lucidity dawns like an endless cloudless sky, with no center or periphery. This is resting in the yoga of luminosity.

According to the tantric teachings, this luminosity is said to appear in several natural ways. As is stated in the Oral Teachings of Manjushri:

The minds of embodied beings are refined 
When thoroughly familiar with experiences 
That occur in mere moments of death, fainting, sleep, 
Yawning, and sexual union.

These occasions happen to everyone, and this universality points to the underlying continuity of luminous clarity in the mind of every sentient being. This underlying continuity is known as the ground and is metaphorically spoken of as “mother luminosity,” the dharmakaya, the abiding nature of all things. The luminosity of the mother is in constant relationship with all of what occurs on the path, and, with recognition, can shine through at any moment. Such experiences on the path are called “child luminosity.” When the path matures to its fruition, and the ground is fully recognized, the result is called the “meeting of mother and child.” While this process happens in the fullest way at the time of death, the practices of the Six Dharmas develop familiarity with this during one’s life, particularly the “luminosity of sleep,” which Naropa called “the heart” of the Six Dharmas.  

The Story of Luminous Clarity

As Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé writes in The Treasury of Knowledge, the story of luminous clarity begins with a moment of misrecognition:

Natural, perfectly pure luminous clarity is the vajra of mind. When its natural expressive energy is not aware of its own essence, the afflicted mind stirs from the universal ground. On the strength of that, awareness is taken to be a self and its reflexive appearance is taken to be an object; [this is] the basic subject-object split. Under the power of this dualistic perception, various karmic action and habitual patterns are accumulated, turning into an interlinking chain of delusion and endless drifting in cyclic existence. This mode of delusion is relative truth. It is the incidental stains of the mind that are to be refined away. Since they do not abide as its basic character, they appear and yet are not truly existent. Therefore, one can become liberated through the antidote of self-recognition.

Luminous clarity is the union of clarity and emptiness. Because of misrecognition, mind’s nature is split in two, emptiness becomes confused as a perceiving subject, and clarity becomes confused as objects. Between the two, a dance develops. As push and pull become attachment and aversion, the cycle of samsaric suffering begins to turn.          

Why does the mind appear to mistake its own light? Why does it turn away from itself, fall asleep, and divide itself? This is a mystery at the heart of the dharma, and something we return to night after night. Perhaps, as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche says, luminous mind “is capable of producing anything, even ignorance of its own nature…. Not recognizing natural mind is simply an example of the mind’s unlimited capacity to create.” Luminous mind is so free in its radiance that it is even free to explore itself as darkness, separation, and unawareness. 

Dissolution: Moonlight, Sunlight, Midnight

Tantra has an ingenious way of casting such dramas into an embodied narrative. In this case, the emptiness and clarity aspects are given a physical form. These forms are intuited in the body as white and red drops (Tibetan: thigle; Sanskrit: bindu) that are considered the seeds of one’s father and mother, respectively. When these two drops meet at the moment of conception, they become a landing pad for dualistic consciousness. As the body develops in the womb, these drops separate, with the white drop coming to reside at the head and the red at the navel. 

At the time of death, when falling asleep,  and in yogic practice, the five elements  and gross thoughts dissolve. Then, the more subtle winds that support our grasping to the reality of subject and object dissolve. These subtle winds are the supports of the red and white drops, and without that support, the drops draw toward one another into the heart center. 

According to the tradition of Naropa, when the white drop descends from the crown to the heart, there is the dawning of an immersive experience like being in the midst of a moonlit sky. This is called white “appearance,” in which concepts related to perceived objects dissolve. Next, the red drop in the navel rises to the heart, and there is a panoramic dissolution into the center of a sunlit sky. This is called “increase,” and concepts related to the perceiving subject dissolve. Finally, as the red and white drops coalesce in the heart, there is an experience like fainting into a completely black midnight sky without center or edge. This is called black “attainment,” in which all concepts underlying dualistic mind dissolve.

Between Midnight and Luminosity

At this point, whether we are dying or sleeping, since there are no longer any reference points of subject and object to hold on to,  we black out. This is midnight, the full depth of ignorance. But if we are at ease with groundlessness, we can rest in the groundless ground of mother awareness, and luminosity dawns. This is said to be like the cloudless sky between the setting of the moon and sunrise.

This juncture between black “attainment” and “luminosity” is the nexus of luminosity yoga. The practice focuses on the heart center (Sanskrit: dharmacakra) of the subtle body because, during the stage of black attainment, mind reabsorbs into the universal ground consciousness,  located in the heart. This is the storehouse of all karmic imprints and habits, which obscure its nature. When the incidental stains of that ground are purified, it is called the primordial ground of wisdom, the mother. As long as the ground of dualistic consciousness is not transformed into nondual wisdom, there will be a gap between “attainment” and “luminosity,” and the practitioner will alternate between self-recognition and unconsciousness.

Ground: The Luminous Clarity of the Mother

How do we purify these obscurations of the ground and recognize its luminous, empty essence? The first step is through a direct introduction to that essence by someone who has stabilized that recognition. When Tilopa gave such an introduction to his student Naropa, he slapped him across the face with his sandal and said, “This is self-arising primordial wisdom, beyond words and imagination. I have nothing more to show you. Now you should know yourself from this direct introduction to the Luminosity of Awareness.” Naropa passed out with the blow, but when he woke again, his realization was continuous and stable. 

Ground luminosity is something that is recognized in relationship with someone who possesses that knowledge and is capable of transmitting it. Like the connection between a mother and child, the intimacy of this connection is what allows for recognition, and informs the path of practice that follows. 

Path: The Luminous Clarity of the Child

The path is called “child luminosity” to show how each individual’s self-awareness is unique in how it has separated from mother awareness, and unique in the journey it takes back home. Mother and child luminosity have never truly been separated, and the path is about recognizing the underlying continuity. After the initial re-introduction by one’s teacher, it is then up to the practitioner to recognize the luminosity in their own practice by following their lineage of instruction. Nowadays, one can find many instructions for practicing various types of “sleep yoga” without difficulty. These instructions may bring benefit, but methods that are held in a living relationship with a teacher in an unbroken lineage of theory and practice carry uncommon depth and authenticity. 

As most of us know by now, there is the theory of how the practice should go, and there is the reality of the practice meeting us where we are at, which is oftentimes quite a different story. Whether in retreat or in daily life, for me, this is mostly a story of confusion and wandering. The day tends to be a constant struggle of push and pull, wandering through various failed attempts to come home. Samsara, as they say, is so exhausting. By the end of the day, it’s natural to just want to pass out and turn the whole thing off. 

Sometimes I suffer from insomnia, the unbroken stream of compulsive conceptuality. Eventually, I can arrest or exhaust the stream and plunge into oblivion, forgetting the whole mess. On one hand, sleep is a lifesaver. It is a nourishing balm that allows us to continue living. On the other, it is also the place most in need of awareness, where the habits of ignorance are the thickest. The compulsion to push and pull in the daytime comes from the obscurations of the ground, and when the time to sleep comes, the natural process of dissolution happens in an instant, and we are swallowed back into the obscurity of that ground. 

Why does the mind turn away from itself, fall asleep, and divide itself? This is a mystery at the heart of the dharma, and something we return to night after night.

Luminosity yoga begins by diminishing the compulsive push and pull of the day so that the dissolution process is not a mad rush into oblivion, but a graceful transition into luminosity. We begin by introducing more luminosity into our daytime so that the pull of the blackout of attainment isn’t so compelling. Then, we work with the practice of the night, bringing wakefulness directly into the darkest part of the night. 

The Practice of the Day

The traditional instructions begin with the most practical advice of remembering impermanence. Reflecting on impermanence throughout the day naturally brings out the luminous nature of phenomena and diminishes clinging to the perceiver as well. Following this, the most uncontrived way of developing the lucidity of deep sleep is to meditate on Mahamudra during the day. As Naropa suggests, through mixing one’s mind with the sky and other mahamudra practices, the dissolution process occurs effortlessly, and one is able to recognize luminosity.  

Complementary methods are also given, such as the dissolutions of inner heat practice (tummo), or through dissolving into the heart center, in which the practitioner repeatedly imagines their own body as the light body of the deity, radiating that light in all directions and outshining all habitual appearances of the phenomenal world. This panoramic light then dissolves into one’s own body, which dissolves into a drop of light at the heart and vanishes, erasing the basis of the perceiving subject. This process is a potent way to diminish the grasping of perceiver and perceived that underlies dualistic experience.

The Practice of the Night

At the time of going to sleep, one first develops the power of aspiration to recognize the luminosity of dreamless sleep. Combined with this is the power of devotion and compassion, reconnecting with the introduction offered by one’s teacher and supplicating the lineage for the blessing to be able to recognize the state of sleep to benefit others. Offering and dedicating a candle or butter lamp to be kept burning through the night can also encourage lucidity.

Most instructions for nighttime practice relate to a visualization in a particular place in the body, such as at the top of the head, the forehead, in the heart, in the belly, at the tip of the sexual organs, or on the central channel as a whole. As mentioned, the heart center is generally the primary focus. Regardless of the method, one focuses in a vivid yet relaxed way and falls asleep in that focus. 

In general, for most of us on the path, devotion is the primary practice to help us develop the capacity to recognize the luminosity of sleep. The easiest and least esoteric way of practicing is to simply visualize one’s teacher or any wisdom being in one’s heart. You can radiate light from that and fill the room, or simply rest in that point of luminosity in the heart and fall asleep. 

Naropa also suggests that once one is asleep, one’s teacher or partner can whisper in one’s ear, “Are you recognizing the luminosity of sleep?” As many lay practitioners may know, such a reminder may also come from one’s children squeaking in the night!

According to Jetsun Taranatha, these kinds of outside interventions, especially in the form of spiritual blessings, are actually the only methods that can be direct causes of wakefulness in deep sleep. He writes, “In deep sleep, there is no conscious effort; thus, the luminosity of sleep can only appear on its own, without any other meditation being useful.”  

Even if we have developed the capacity to slow down the dissolution process enough to appreciate the appearances of moonlight, sunlight, and midnight, at the end of this process, there is no one there to exert conscious effort. The gap between black attainment and the dawning of luminosity remains even for advanced practitioners. And in any case, “experiencing” the luminosity of sleep is actually not possible. There is no direction, no reference point, no thought stream, and therefore no time and duration. So oftentimes, in the beginning, the luminosity of sleep is only recognized in retrospect. Until we are acquainted with groundlessness, it is oftentimes only noticed in retrospect, once we have returned to familiar ground and take a look back at what just happened. 

Sometimes I wake up and say, “I was sleeping, but I wasn’t asleep.” I remember looking at the clock at 4:00 a.m., and since then, I haven’t slept at all. But now, when I look again, the clock says 6:00. There were no dreams. Where did the time go? I was lying awake the whole time…  

Sometimes, out of nowhere, a dream appears. I can’t tell whether my eyes are open or shut, but I do know that I am sleeping, so it must be a dream. In some way, “I” was “there” to notice the dream dawn out of nowhere. This can be the beginning of dream yoga, but in retrospect, it is a taste of luminosity yoga as well. At this point, if I ask, “Who is dreaming?” the dream can dissolve back into luminosity…or blackout. The boundary between midnight attainment and luminous clarity, recognition and misrecognition, is inscrutable and subtle.   

Luminosity might be considered something like an experience of exhaling forever and ever, resting at the vanishing point of that breath, unfolding without end or origin, bathing in a silence and stillness so deep it seeps into every fiber of the body and filament of the mind, restoring everything to an original innocence and sacred embrace. It is said that if one can rest in this way during deep sleep in this life, it is likely one will be able to wake up to the full-blown luminosity that dawns at the time of death. 

Fruition: The Meeting of Mother and Child Luminosity

Up until this point, every moment of experiencing luminosity has served as an example. The first example, given by one’s teacher, deepens with every subsequent experience of luminosity on the path. These examples of child luminosity purify the incidental stains of the ground until the point where habitual consciousness is recognized as dharmakaya wisdom, the mind of the Buddha. If this process isn’t completed in life, death offers an unprecedented opportunity for it to occur all at once. At this point, the path luminosity can fully rejoin the authentic ground of mother luminosity, “like a child jumping into the lap of its mother.” 

Whether like the reunion of the mother and child, or the meeting of an old friend or lover after lifetimes of separation, it was all over in the blink of an eye. We don’t know exactly why we lost touch, or if we actually lost touch at all, or if it even matters much. All along, there were examples, indications that the impression of separation was false, intimations of an underlying continuity weaving through the entire path. And even if we sense that this separation might occur again, it is hard to say that we wouldn’t do it all over again, curious to balance on the edge of midnight and clear light, and risk falling asleep. Wakefulness, after all, takes less effort than blinking the eyes, complete in an instant of self-recognition.  

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.