Colorado-based Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray to speak in Vancouver

By Matthew Burrows,, Jan 19, 2009

Vancouver, Canada -- For many years, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray, a 66-year-old resident of Crestone, Colorado, studied under Tibetan Shambhala founder Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

<< Tibetan Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray will be enlightening Vancouverites at several events in the city this week, including a free public lecture at the Vancouver Public Library.

About three years ago, Ray, a teacher of Buddhist studies at Naropa University, left the Shambhala Mountain Center and began teaching a growing number of students what he told the Georgia Straight was still very much in the mould of what Trungpa was teaching.

In 2008, Ray published Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body (Sounds True), which neatly sums up his new teachings.

He will partake in a panel discussion Thursday (January 22) at SFU Harbour Centre, entitled Mindfulness and Yoga: Social Discipline or Spiritual Practice? (Room 1400/10 from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.).

On Friday (January 23), he will give a free talk at the Alice MacKay Room at the downtown Vancouver Public Library, followed by a weekend retreat at UBC.

Ray spoke to Straight reporter Matthew Burrows about his Vancouver events and a variety of topics.

Matthew Burrows: How can humankind use the body as a means to attain enlightenment?

Reggie Ray: Well, I am going to be speaking to you from the viewpoint of Buddhist tradition, and particularly Tibetan Buddhism. The first question we have to ask is, ‘What is enlightenment?’ There has been, I think, a misunderstanding in Western culture, because of our dualistic religious traditions, that somehow enlightenment is something separate from, and other than, life itself. In the Buddhist tradition, enlightenment means simply realizing the fullest potential of the human person, in terms of the maturation—the unfolding—of the human personality to its fullest extent, and developing love and compassion for other people that is not based on self-centredness and connecting with the sacredness of the world. That’s what enlightenment is. In order to do that, that process involves connecting very, very deeply with our body and with our karmic situation and with the life that we are actually living. We can go into more detail, but that would be the short form.

MB: Can people who have not taken refuge in any Buddhist tradition at all find relevance in what you are saying?

RR: Well yes, because this is another misunderstanding I think. Many people feel that Buddhism is an organized religion in the way that we’re used to, which is exclusive and you have to be a Buddhist in order to make the kind of journey they are talking about. But in fact, the Buddha himself said, ‘I am simply tapping into the natural, spontaneous spirituality that all people have.” Any person in any culture in any life stage and in any situation can make that exact same journey, because it is already implicit in us as humans.

MB: And you very eloquently wrote on your Web site,, “the entire universe delivers itself in each moment of our lives”.

RR: Yes.

MB: Now, in the earlier part of the book (Touching Enlightenment), or the early chapters, you have these personal insights into how industrialized society seems to have a very fractured relationship to the body, and how we are all working very hard but not really in touch with our breath.

RR: Yes.

MB: Then, when we come to retire, [the message is] we can’t really enjoy it anyway because our health is shot and things maybe are not available to us that we envisioned would be. After that, in what is almost a book of two halves, you bring in your own teachings. Can you talk about the first half first and mention where you grew up too?

RR: Sure. I grew up in a rural part of Connecticut, near New York City. I spent a tremendous amount of time outdoors in nature and wasn’t really exposed to television or technology very much at all. I was born in 1942, and so TV wasn’t really part of the deal. So it was a different way in those days.

MB: You studied for many years under [Shambhala founder] Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Would you call what you are doing now a departure from what you studied under Trungpa Rinpoche? How would you describe the new direction?

RR: I would say that what I teach is completely derived from what I learned from him....I met him 39 years ago, and I studied with him very, very closely while he was teaching for the 17 years he was teaching in North America. Frankly, to tell you the truth, his son [and heir] the Sakyong [Mipham Rinpoche] has developed a line of teachings that, in many ways, is a departure from what his father did. In some ways it’s not, but in many ways it is a departure. I was the teacher-in-residence at the [Colorado-based] Shambhala Mountain Center for seven years. I was actually the first and only teacher in residence they have ever had. During that time, the Sakyong was studying in India under some very traditional lamas, and he was introducing a lot of different teachings that he was learning, which is wonderful, that he was actually doing that. But I was continuing to teach Chögyam Trungpa’s teachings, and I taught from his books and his transcripts and my own experience and my own practice. At a certain point, it just didn’t seem fair to the Sakyong, because his students there were different lines of teaching going on at the Shambhala Mountain Center and it was just too confusing, and at that point I felt that the elegant and graceful thing to do would be to leave. So we moved down to Crestone [Colorado]. I had a community of maybe 100 students and we went down to Crestone. It’s been much better, frankly, as I’ve been teaching my whole life—as an academic teacher, Naropa teacher and dharma teacher—and for me to be trying to fit in to the Sakyong’s recipe or agenda, you have to teach what your teacher taught you—you can’t do other things. You have an obligation. Trungpa Rinpoche said, ‘I am teaching you these things and I want you to pass them on to others.’ Now, many of Trungpa Rinpoche’s senior students have really entered the new teaching and the new direction of Shambhala national, and that’s fine. More power to them. But for me, because of the depth... You know, I met Trungpa Rinpoche literally days after he entered this country, and I spent 17 years really learning everything I could from him, and that’s really what I have to offer. I don’t really have to offer anything else.

MB: In your book you state (on page 4) that “simply practicing meditation does not necessarily yield results”. There are quite a few people in Vancouver who practice meditation and they may not get past that.

RR: I don’t want to discourage people, but in my experience, I have been teaching meditation for 38 years. The most common problem that they have is that the meditation turns into a mental exercise and you are simply trying to put yourself into a mental state that is painless. And while I am sympathetic with that, and I have done it myself, you don’t grow when you get into a painless state. Meditation really needs to be an exercise in expanding our own understanding of our lives and our lives, and our willingness to face the dark areas.

MB: In your book, you talk about embodied and disembodied [states]. Can you elaborate?

RR: This may sound very strange, but there are deeper and deeper levels of embodiment. The first layer is the physical body. As a practitioner, when you begin to realize that the physical body is actually empty, you are actually more embodied, because you are coming more into what it means to be human. You are coming into a more subtle level, which is the subtle body, or the body that is empty.

MB: For those who have not read the book, what basic exercises can people start to do?

RR: There is a practice I teach called the 10-point practice, which is a practice that involves putting the awareness into different parts of the body. You go through a very interesting process when you do that. You start with the feet and then you work through to the toes and then you work the feet as a whole, the ankles and the calves and then you work your way up. What you are doing is, first of all, paying attention to your body. This sounds very simple, but most of the time in life, we practice constantly distancing ourselves from our bodies. So number one, you connect with your body. Then number two, you begin to realize that the body itself is riddled with physical tension and tightness and solidity. You put your awareness into your tension and your tightness, and when you do, you start to release and relax all of the places where you’ve been hanging on. Now, this is very significant, because the human ego is a frozen somatic response. In other words, the holding on in the body, tightening the body and freezing the body is a way in which the ego maintains itself. The reason is because the body holds information that is inconsistent with what the ego wants to hear. The body is the unconscious reservoir of all of our feelings and experiences and memories that we don’t admit into our awareness, because they are too threatening to our self-image. When you start working with the body, the information begins to flow, and the body releases and relaxes and you begin to see things that are extraordinarily important in terms of your own maturation and spiritual unfolding. So, working with the body in a very simple way, just simply paying attention and breathing into it a little bit and noticing when you are tight and relaxing, actually begins to unlock a process of spiritual maturation that for many of us is not accessible, because we are so tight and tense.

MB: You talk about body, but is mind not the basis for everything?

RR: I would say awareness is the body. I wouldn’t say mind, because that is very ambiguous. I would say that awareness is the body of everything. The Tibetan word is Rigpa. What do I mean by saying awareness is the basis for everything? The nature of the body itself is awareness. When we begin to work with the body, we begin to realize that the so-called, apparently physical, solid body of bones, organs and flesh is actually an overlay. The experiential nature of the body that is unlocked through meditation practice shows us that the body is actually empty and open and a field of energy. That is the illusory body and that is actually the true nature of our body. That body is aware. What I am doing is, starting with the body that we think we have and trying to help people discover the body that we actually have through meditation. When we do that, that is where awareness resides. This whole teaching that I do comes out of the Six Yogas of Naropa []. That is basically where the perspective is anchored. I think often about a saying in Dzogchen that enlightenment is found in the body and awareness is found in the body, and nowhere else. The body itself is the gateway to enlightenment and it embodies and holds enlightenment. I feel that is a very helpful point of view.

MB: Anything to add?

RR: One thing I would add is that, for me, the essence of dharma is the practice of meditation. I really identify with something Chögyam Trungpa said in the early ’70s, when he was teaching us. He said, ‘The only reason why I am really working with you is so that I can teach you meditation. Meditation is the only thing that I really have to offer. Everything that I do is to really try to get you on the cushion to meditate and work with your own state of being.’ I feel very much that way too. For the people that mediate there is a real journey, but we can’t do it without practice. That would be my main thing to emphasize. We have to meditate, we have to practice in order to grow spiritually.
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