July 11, 2011

Spirituality & Daily Life: Interview with an American Meditation Master.

Maximizing the Opportunities for Spiritual Realization.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Reginald A. Ray.

Reggie Ray has “four decades of study and intensive meditation practice within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, as well as a special gift for applying it to the unique problems, inspirations, and spiritual imperatives of modern people. He currently resides in Crestone, Colorado, where he is Spiritual Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the practice, study and preservation of the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the practice lineage he embodied.”


What is an average day like for Reggie Ray?

Reggie Ray: Well, right now I am on retreat, getting ready for a program in mid-July. In the morning I practice for a couple of hours, and I do some Qigong. I spend a little time talking to my wife about some ideas for the upcoming program. Then I practice some more. In the evenings a couple of the senior students come by, we’ll talk and have tea. Then I practice some more.

That’s great.

Reggie Ray: Well, that’s my life right now getting ready for the program. It’s what I call dharma, it’s pretty wonderful.

One of the things I’ve always found attractive about the vajrayana teachings, and your teachings in particular, is that your daily life is the path. You are someone who is committed to the practice and committed to retreat, but you are also married. Could you talk for a second about how your daily life compliments your practice and vice versa?

Reggie Ray: I’m married and have two children; one a little older and the other a little younger. Truthfully, in the vajrayana, and in Chogyam Trungpa’s lineage, there are more possibilities of spiritual realization in the lay life, once you combine it with practice, than there are in monastic life or if you are some guy living off by yourself in a cave.

Listening to that, two questions come to mind: Most of us have ton’s of preconceived ideas about spiritual teachers. We tend to think that they are perfect; like they haven’t had a disagreement with anyone in like 30 years or experienced a negative emotion. But you know, I have a girlfriend and I am committed to a practice, so I know how difficult that can be. In fact, a lot of the time, it feels like those “possibilities of spiritual realization” you mentioned earlier are being pulled out of me, because I have a girlfriend.

Reggie Ray: That’s exactly right.  Well, let’s face it. In our western tradition, and in traditional Asian Buddhism, there is this idea that somehow enlightenment and spirituality are separate from the facts of ordinary life. In the vajrayana that is completely wrong.

A lot of people find life painful. They look to spirituality to escape from the density and the heat, but in doing so the possibilities of transformation are off the table.

So we have to ask, “What is spirituality?” Spirituality is something that is inborn in every human being. It is the constant change and unfolding of human personality towards it’s realization. Now, you could say, “That sounds very anthropological and psychological,” and it is.

When the Buddha talked about impermanence, he was talking about living life in such a way that you don’t lock yourself up in some thick idea of who you are. You unfold as a person. When you radically accept impermanence you are accepting the unending change that is part of the unfolding of human personality to it’s perfection. When the Buddha talked about dualism, he was talking about not trying to establish some thick idea of who you are, and then trying to live inside some secure and protected identity. Rather, you are willing to accept the death and rebirth of your idea of yourself, which is part of human life.

Initially, spirituality in the west means we have to discipline our life; we have to settle down, we have to practice meditation, we have to realize that there is a peacefulness and an openness inside of us. Next, having contacted that big, open, empty awareness within you, you have to fully engage life. You have to be 100% in daily life. The reason is, even when our mind is open and peaceful, there are imprisonments, blockages, and obstacles in the unconscious that are not being addressed. And they really hold us back, make our awareness small. So, in the vajrayana there are two steps. First, contact the natural state, what is called the unborn mind. Second, you have to engage life and let life stir up from the depths all your blockages, neurosis, and primitive infantile reactions. And when those things—work, relationships, particularly intimate relationships—bring those blockages to the surface you sit down and practice with them, and they become integrated into your consciousness. So, for the vajrayana it is in the engagement of daily life and not protecting yourself by running to a monastery or cave. That is where the journey is going to happen. You are going to really achieve something in the long run.

From a certain point of view, the life that you and I are living—relationships, work, and connections with our friends and enemies—from the vajrayana’s point of view, that is the ideal situation for spiritual realization.

When I found out that I was going to do this interview with you, I sat down and listened to some other interviews you had done. On your website I found an interview entitled, “The Body As The Guru.” In it you were talking about the spiritual path and daily life.  The host of the show said, “We have to take our practice off of the cushion,” which I have heard a thousand times. But your response was a new one on me. You said, “Or we have to redefine what it means to sit on a cushion.” You didn’t really go into what you meant in that interview… So, I am asking you to do elaborate on it now.

Reggie Ray: When we’re sitting on the cushion we are actually extending our awareness into our bodies. We are in a way present within the totality of our being, which on the surface is a somatic being. The information we need for our life arises within us, it becomes clear.

If you get up off the cushion and there is a transition into something else, which might be a lot heavier or disembodied that means you are not present in your life. Your cushion is your body. That happens whether you are sitting on a zafu or you are in your daily life.

You mentioned the transition from the cushion to the front door, so to speak. Basically, one is meditation, but the other is not. Is it fair to say that if there is a transition taking place, not only is there something off about the way that you are being present in your daily life, but also in your sitting practice? Is it possible that in such situations meditation is contrived? Is the transition happening because we are trying to zone out on the cushion or create some sort of meditative trance? Or are we present in the body while we are on the cushion, and then migrating into our head as we walk out of the door?

Reggie Ray: That’s a good point. If you sit down to meditate with some idea about a state of mind you are trying to get to, or have memory of some pleasant experience from the past, then you’re not doing anything different than sitting in a meeting and trying to make a good presentation, trying to impress the people around you. Only in this case, you are trying to impress yourself. That is not meditation. Meditation is when you sit and let go of all your effort, and allow yourself to be present.                                                                                            That’s what meditation is.

So, as you’ve mentioned, joining your practice with your daily life—9 to 5, wife or husband, kids, and work—from the vajrayana’s point of view, this is the ideal situation. These aspects of our daily life have a capacity to break through our defenses, push our buttons, and invite us to unfold. You’ve said that spirituality is the unfolding of human personality towards it’s perfection. I am assuming that by “perfection” you do not mean some static idea about perfection. So what exactly do you mean when you say “perfection?”

Reggie Ray: Actually, instead of the term perfection, I would rather say, “fulfillment” or “realization.” In the same way that an animal goes through it’s life-cycle—from being an embryo, all the way to death—at the moment of death the biological, and I would say, spiritual imperative of being a lion or a worm is fulfilled.

So with human beings, we could use the analogy of initiation in indigenous societies. In indigenous societies, at a certain point people go through an initiation, which introduces them to the fact that life is much bigger than what they might have thought when they were children or even during adolescence. Our natural human awareness is limitless. Everything in creation has a life-cycle, and when people are allowed to unfold—when they are allowed to follow the natural, biological, and genetically driven cycle of what it means to be human—our understanding and awareness becomes bigger and bigger. We have more appreciation for other people’s points of view, for the world beyond our world—the animal world, the plant world, and the universe. That is what I am talking about.

There is a natural tendency towards what Buddhist call “enlightenment,” but it can also be seen in the indigenous societies. That is really what we are talking about.

In Buddhism we call it buddha-nature, but buddha-nature isn’t simply an established state. It is a process of being in the river of spiritual maturation that goes on-&-on, never reaching a static point. Perfection, in this case, refers to fulfilling the journey of the human life. When are fully and completely with what it means to be human, we have let go of any attempt to pin ourselves down, solidify ourselves, or encrust ourselves at any stage. It is an unending, open process. When we have completely let go of any attempt to withdrawal from life or freeze ourselves, that’s what I mean by perfection.

Would it be fair to say that your description of “perfection” corresponds to Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings on luminosity? There is a continual process of unfolding and opening up, but the space that is discovered when we open up is not dead space.

Reggie Ray: Right. When we are doing that, in that moment, we are really with who we are. That is what’s meant by enlightenment. So yes, very much so.

This is the first of a three part interview. Please follow us on FB or twitter to be notified when parts two and three are published.


Click here to read more about Reggie Ray. Or if you would like browse The Dharma Ocean Website, click here.

The Dharma Ocean Foundation has an online media store where you can download “theme-based affordable bundles of talks, as well as complete program recordings.” Right now they are offering a free MP3 or PDF download, a talk from Reggie Ray entitled, “Emotional Awakening.” Click here for this free download.


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