Though it’s been four years in the planning, the Tibet’s Secret Temple exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection could hardly have been better-timed for hashtagged hotness. Not only is the Wellcome currently hosting a research project into the new neural findings about the meditative mind; the show—a collection of archival films, statues and paintings, some from a 17th century private meditation chamber for Dalai Lamas—is also a perfect pop cultural moment.
With mandalas, mindfulness and yoga all the rage in bestselling colouring books, and skulls and body parts as in vogue as ever with goth-ish fashion types, after its first couple of weeks Tibet’s Secret Temple is proving to be one of the most popular the Wellcome has ever hosted. As part of a related programme of events, Buddhist lama and Tantric Yoga practitioner Akarpa Lobsang Rinpoche came to London, where he spoke to Amuse about why Tibetan thought seems to have such resonance in our lives.
Rinpoche, you’re in London to hold workshops alongside the Secret Temple exhibition. The show seems very popular and your own events are long booked up. Why are people so drawn to yoga and meditation at the moment?
One of the phenomena, whether in Asia or in the West, is that in the current time through the technology revolution, information and communications between people has been condensed and accelerated to a degree never seen before now. We must recognise the impact of this technology revolution on lifestyles and perceptions.
“The advent of the different electronic means of communication—Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook—has effectively created a new Western culture.”
But regardless of this great cultural ‘advantage’, we still have to sit back and ask ourselves some very basic questions: why do we live? Why do we work? Why do we exist? And what is the purpose of even using this technology? Because in many ways we’re losing the actual purpose of having it.
You have all this digitised information which is telling you what kind of car to drive, what kind of clothes to buy, and all the different kinds of food you can eat. But nothing, at all, addresses your mind-body or your spirituality. That has almost been left out of the digital equation, yet the human experience goes beyond these things you consume and post your pictures of. There are much deeper aspects of the human experience that, right now, are being ignored.
Earlier traditional thinking, whether in Tibet, India or Egypt, had a deep understanding of a human’s place in the universe, and their spiritual conditions. If you get deeply into the traditional cultures, you’ll find that many of their ideas and teachings were more advanced than what we have in our civilization today, even though we think we’re advanced.
The faster our digital technology gets, the more we need to find ways to go back to traditional cultures which can show us the core things that we’re losing.
The ‘Secret Temple’ exhibition is at the Wellcome Collection, which itself is a kind of temple to modern science and medicine, and it explains everything from crystals to chakras in a very rational, coherent way. Do you think it’s a good thing to break down the modern cultural opposition between hard science and ‘alternative’ therapies?
‘Science’ is a very new term. I don’t really understand what they mean by it. Until the age of 20, I hadn’t even heard of it. Now I understand some science and scientific words, but what’s really interesting to me is that some things ‘science’ knew 10 years, ago, ‘science’ now doesn’t recognise and has overturned. That leads me to believe that what we recognise now as the really great technological and scientific accomplishments may be overturned and not recognised in another 20 years. However, you can talk about Tibetan Buddhist practice: it is as it has been for 2000 years – and it’s still being practiced.
This reminds us that to have a blind belief in any one thing is a very stupid, childish way of thinking. To have a belief in science without believing in anything else, you have to ask yourself a question: is that smart? You don’t want to believe in love? In your lifestyle? In yourself? Then you’re left thinking: I need to work hard. I need more money. Then I can buy more things. This is how you’re educated to look at your existence.
But from the point of view of Tantric Yoga, you have to understand that the first issue that it is preserving is your physical body. You have to understand the phenomenon of human beings breathing. And that we breathe within a greater environment of which we are a part, and which to some extent is our own creation. If you don’t know how to breathe correctly, you’ll get sick and life will be short.
The second aspect is that life is an activity, it’s about the body in motion, like a sport. Tibetan Yoga will emphasise the importance of movement, of opening up your different joints, your circulation, the many meridian points or nerve centres in your body. These need to be constantly opened and the energy and the oxygen in your blood needs to be circulated. This requires constant physical practice. Your most basic enjoyment in life depends upon your nervous system and your body’s integrity.
“How can you enjoy sexual pleasure to its full extent if you don’t have a healthy body?”
Digital technology lets us go anywhere without moving our bodies. Is that why more people seem to find such value in activities like yoga?
The biggest problem with humanity now is that the spiritual dimension, physical dimension and technology are all split up. It’s all been broken apart. There is no comprehensive approach to the body, mind and spirit as an interconnected biosystem. Meditative practices of Tibetan Buddhism and ancient Yogic practices can help one to reconnect. Right now we think we have such great technology because we can sit in our office or our desk and control the lights without moving. Or we can sit on our toilet and flush it and make all kinds of things happen, or go to our kitchen and press buttons without having to do anything ourselves.
But this kind of condition doesn’t actually allow people to try to control what’s happening in their mind. They’re only controlling externalities. In cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo, and some I’ve been to in Europe, I find that more and more Westeners and Asians can’t sleep at night because work demands are so stressful. That’s because we can’t control our own brains, our own minds. We can’t turn the lights off!
So, at the very least, Tibetan Yoga can allow you to calm your mind down and to put the same kind of controls on your mind as you already put on your toilet and your kitchen and your lights, and allow you to at least have a good night’s sleep. Is that a good scientific goal?
There’s a lot of death in the exhibition, from decorated human skulls to internal organs as folk-art. It feels as though people were much more willing to acknowledge the reality of death 600 years ago than we are today.
The digital world, the technological revolution, basically obscures death. It creates a set of illusions that allows people to live in their computer and not have to face the inevitable reality of disintegration and death. However, Tibetan Yoga not only confronts it but embraces it… in the Tibetan viewpoint, death is a linear process through death to life. Life is not a short process that ends absolutely. It’s a continuation.
You mentioned Egypt earlier. One of the masks in the exhibition really reminded me of a collection of Ashanti masks a friend has. He said that when he learned about them in Ghana and Sierra Leone, he realised they echoed symbols from Ancient Egypt. Do you think these are coincidences, or evidence of wisdom that was shared in the ancient world?
I’m not an archaeologist or an Egyptologist so I can’t speak from their point of view, but I can say that from my own experience as a Buddhist, books I’ve read, pictures I’ve seen, information I’ve gathered, I myself am also shocked by the similarities. Because in the Tibetan bardo process, our soul is confronted by many different spiritual images, and those images have parallels in the images you see in the tombs of ancient Egypt. There’s a much deeper parallel as much of the mantras or prayers connected with the death experience, as written in those tombs, or within the sarcophogi of the mummies, are very similar to our mantras and prayers that as well. So there is this enormous similarity. Is this something that involves cultural cross-currents and exchange, or is it a universal experience that was independently arrived at by two parallel cultures? I don’t know.
You first entered the monastery at four years old. We have a very austere, devout image of monks – especially Tibetan ones. Is this true to life? If so, how does that fit with Tantric Yoga’s emphasis on pleasure, joy and sensuality?
The basic rules of the traditional Tibetan monastery and a Christian monastery or nunnery are very similar. The traditional monasticism of many religions involves the rejection of sexuality and the rejection of eating meat. This is common across many cultures. As is the kind of discrimination where the monks cannot have contact with females: also traditional across many different cultures and still exists today, in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism – many religions. Women are not allowed in the temples, there’s separation.
This has to do with the actual specific civilisations to which these monasteries are related. It has almost nothing to do with the core principles of our religion or any of these religions. It’s all about the cultural context in fact. The fact is that sexual discrimination has been perpetuated in civilisations as a political dynamic across centuries, effectively allowing men to have control over the processes of politics and economics and, in turn, family life. It’s about history, not Tibetan Yoga.
“Bliss is a state of perpetual enjoyment, or you could say, a quality of life in which you have enjoyment, rather than rejection, of all the aspects of life and existence.”
Tibetan Yoga talks about pleasure and enjoyment. The practice of the art of Tibetan Yoga is to practice the absorption of our enjoyment and pleasure in our universal existence.
But there arises an issue with unlimited bliss and enjoyment. You do not have the capacity to experience unlimited, eternal enjoyment and bliss – that’s just a fact of our structural environment. Those many images you’ve seen in the exhibition of the Buddha embracing a female consort: this is a kind of state of bliss, an icon for the state of bliss everybody exists in during a sexual relation. Usually it’s very short. The answer is usually that you have not reached the full extension of your capacity to absorb bliss.
So can you imagine having an orgasm for 24 hours non-stop? A 24-hour orgasm is basically the state of bliss. In a state of orgasmic excitement, at that moment, all of the anger, frustration, the thoughts that you have that are making you unhappy, don’t have any space in which to exist. Your external thoughts have stopped; everything stops. Only at that moment is there your recognition of a state of existence, of your existence.
So we can only really have that sense of really feeling alive when we clear our minds of all the things that, day-to-day, we think of and worry about as defining our lives, our ‘real’ existence?
Starting with technology – how to be aware of it, as you as are, without it becoming invasion of your head?
It’s a small problem for me because I only have a basic understanding of technology. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a tool. It helps me work. I’m not used by it, I’m not controlled by it. If I’m not using the phone I can leave it in my room. I don’t have to answer it. I can even have two or three months where I don’t look at the phone or check email. Most people, however, they can’t even get away from their gadgets for two or three hours.
“My view is that we should be using technology to serve us, instead of serving the technology, which seems to be the predominant situation with most people.”
If people who read this, or attend one of your workshops, want to make a little step towards escaping their 21st century tech-stress, what would be a first step? Moving? Breathing? Looking at things differently?
The very first thing is to have a positive attitude in your life. That’s your very first step to becoming a happy person, your first step on the road to Tibetan Yoga. You don’t want to be a slave or a worker for your thoughts; to be controlled by your thoughts. You don’t want to be a slave or a worker of your electronic technology. You enter this world because you want to be a happy person. We can’t control the world or will it to change; the world will have its own changes and we can’t necessarily control those. But we can control ourselves and our own lives. I can’t command the world but I can command my own life.
So you want to be a peaceful person? Take control of your life for peace. And if you want to be a yoga person, begin to enjoy yourself and enjoy life. Enjoy everything you see, and the world around you. Enjoy the sensory experiences you have. Enjoy what you listen to, what you smell, what you think, when it’s pleasant. You don’t want to have confrontations.
The problem is that people don’t open up to this at all. Once we do open up, many of the problems and frustrations that we face in our lives disappear naturally. We are the creators of our own problems. We are also then the victims of problems we’ve created. So we want to be not the source of our own problems. That’s what yoga is all about.