A week or few ago, Sky Press’s newest publication, The Weapon of Light: Introduction to Ati Yoga Meditation by Tibetan traditional doctor and tantric yogi Dr Nida Chenagtsang was released for sale. Since I helped with editing and translation for this book, you would think I would have thought to mention it on this blog, but distracted by other things as I was, I forgot to make an announcement. So, since ‘The Weapon of Light’ is actually quite a special little book, I thought I’d make a post about it now.
In December of last year, Sky Press inaugurated its publishing activities with the release of another of Dr Nida’s books, The Mirror of Light: A Commentary on Yuthok’s Ati Yoga. This earlier book includes, along with a host of other resources, my translation into English of Dr Nida’s commentaries on the Ati Yoga or Dzogchen (‘Great Perfection’) instructions which are found in the Yuthok Nyingthig, the cycle of Buddhist texts revealed by Yuthok Yonten Gonpo, the founder of Sowa Rigpa or Tibetan traditional medicine. Both Yuthok the elder and younger (yes, there are said to be two) were great physicians as well as consummate practitioners of tantric yoga and Dzogchen.
The Yuthok Nyingthig, or ‘Heart-essence of Yuthok’ represents a complete collection of teachings on Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, and includes instructions on every aspect of the nine vehicles of the Nyingma or ancient translation school, and then some, all presented in a surprisingly non-sectarian way. As such, the Yuthok Nyingthig constitutes a (woefully understudied!) tradition of ‘Vajrayana for doctors’ which functions as a spiritual complement to the exoteric knowledge taught in the Gyüshi or Four Medical Tantras of Tibetan medicine. It also comprises the only comprehensive set of esoteric tantric practices involving the Medicine Buddha in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (for more information on the Yuthok Nyingthig, see this earlier blog post, which provides a translation of an essay by Dr Nida on the topic, which also appears as supplementary material in the Mirror of Light).
The Mirror of Light presents Dr Nida’s commentaries on the trekchö or ‘Cutting Through Hardness’ teachings of Ati Yoga, as taught in the Yuthok Nyingthig, along with a series of supplementary ritual and explanatory texts. Trekchö teachings are principally concerned with ‘introducing’ or ‘pointing out’ the basic or ‘primordially pure’ nature of rigpa or natural awareness. Through preliminary purifying exercises and the main meditative practices, the practitioner of trekchö is able to ‘cut through’ the obdurate ‘hardness’ of dualistic mind and conceptual thinking, to realize the ever-present, always and already pure and un-elaborated consciousness that is the ‘rootless root’ of all experience. To recognize and maintain, to rest in this state, which is no nameable ‘state’ at all, is to nurture the fullness of what we are, is to get to know our basic, utterly spacious, limitless nature, is to glimpse Buddha-mind. Trekchö instructions are deceptively simple, though. For people like us, who have built all our lives, plans and identifications around conceptual games and elaborations based on strongly polarized thinking, it can be paradoxically challenging to let go and relax into undifferentiated awareness. To truly get the utter simplicity of Ati Yoga teachings often requires the help of a lot of words.
After we published the Mirror of Light, it occurred to us that the book was a little dense. We realized that the presence of long quotations from traditional texts and historical masters, and a host of technical terms could potentially overwhelm or alienate some readers. The chapter on Ati Yoga in the Yuthok Nyingthig, called ‘The Pointing out of the Great Liberation of Samsara and Nirvana’ is a complete teaching, which covers in a condensed way the entirety of Ati Yoga. It is so condensed, in fact, that it runs for just barely eight pages in the Western-style book version of the Yuthok Nyingthig which Dr Nida and his brother Hungchen made affordably available for practitioners a decade or so ago. Dr Nida’s own voice is rather muted in the Mirror of Light. As he goes through Yuthok’s trekchö teachings, he cites great Ati Yoga practitioners of the past who confirm Yuthok’s statements and advice. Part of why Dr Nida opted to use this traditional commentarial style of quoting long passages of text from authoritative sources has to do with suspicions and criticisms he had heard from others about the remarkable brevity of the Yuthok Nyingthik’s Ati Yoga teachings. Some other teachers could not believe that Yuthok’s instructions could possibly represent a complete or authentic transmission when they were so concise, and so Dr Nida drew from the Ati Yoga commentaries of great historical masters like the Fifth Dalai Lama, Shabkar, and Mingyur Paldron to substantiate Yuthok’s teachings and make crystal clear their completeness and conformity with tradition.
The Mirror of Light is a remarkable and invaluable book. That said, it is a volume especially suited to extended contemplation, deep study and retreat. As a companion text, the Weapon of Light by contrast is much more condensed. After the success of the Mirror of Light, Dr Nida expressed his wish that a pithier, more immediately digestible book should be available for students at all levels of experience. The Weapon of Light contains at its heart a translation of Dr Nida’s ‘song of introduction’ to Ati Yoga meditation. This song is an easy to understand distillation of trekchö teachings. In it, Dr Nida leads students through the process of getting to know the nature of their mind in its resting, moving and pure awareness states. He lays out matter-of-factly how beginner and advanced practitioners alike can maintain the natural essence of awareness throughout their day, irrespective of what kind of mental or emotional experiences may be occurring. As further context for this song, the book also includes an edited transcript of some of Dr Nida’s oral teachings that formed part of his Mirror of Light book tour in the United States last year. These transcripts offer readers a taste of Dr Nida in his more colloquial register, and provide clues for deepening readers’ appreciation of the straight-forward instructions of Dr Nida’s guided meditation song.
The small size and physical portability of The Weapon of Light corresponds to the more metaphoric portability of the teachings it contains. One central component of the book is instructions on what are known in Tibetan as lam khyer or lam la khyerwa meditation techniques. This phrase is often rendered in English quite literally as ‘bringing onto the path’, but Dr Nida’s preference is for the more pithy translation ‘portable meditation,’ ‘meditation on the go’. Lam khyer captures the unique orientation of Vajrayana and Ati Yoga beautifully. Like food brought with you when you are out on the road travelling, these meditation instructions cut to the heart of everyday experience, are about dealing with whatever arises in the course of real life with unstinting honesty, openness, kindness and awareness. They are about looking at whatever state or experience or thought arises to see its ultimate nature, are about allowing these to ‘self-liberate’ – that is, to let their basic energy free itself, like clouds dissolving in the limitless sky, into its ultimate source. To give a sense of this, here are two ‘portable meditation’ instructions from Dr Nida’s song in The Weapon of Light:
Without rejecting your worrying, be firmly mindful of it
Without thinking about outside causes or conditions of your worries
Look at the essence of your inner unhappy state of worry
If this state clears away completely as you look at it, then that’s its self-liberation!
When you are sad, look at the essence of your sadness,
When you are happy look at the essence of your happiness,
Look again and again at the pleasurable and painful, good and bad movies of your mind – this is the self-liberation of the mind’s illusions, of all of its glamorous projections!
The teachings of The Weapon of Light are intended to be accessible and easily applicable to everyday life, for anyone, anywhere. To this end, we have also prepared audio recordings of Dr Nida’s song in both Tibetan and English. The Tibetan version features the musical talents (I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a song!) of Tibetan singer, translator and consummate teacher in her own right Dakini Drukmo Gyal, as well as the instrumental stylings of Tamding, who aside from being a musician is also one of the first and most famous Tibetan tattoo artists in the diaspora.
It is our hope that these recordings will serve as convenient reminders of the core points of the teachings. Sky Press has made the English recording of the entire song available for free online, and I have already shared it with a number of friends and acquaintances. Many of these people have listened to it in bed before falling asleep, and report that it has been remarkably effective at making them shift from waking to sleeping and dreaming. Even seasoned insomniacs seem to find Sky Press chief editor Christiana Polites’ soothing voice irresistible. These instructions don’t include any complicated visualizations or breathing techniques, any elaborate bells and whistles. Some people might even say they’re (gasp) boring – which, considering how accustomed to and frustrated by the ‘glamorous projections’ and never quite-good-enough movies of the mind we are, is perhaps one of the best reviews possible! You might also think that people falling asleep while listening to instructions on how to maintain awareness is a little ironic, or a little unfortunate. But Dr Nida would like readers to know that these recordings have put him right out too, and he thinks that is wonderful. Not only is quality sleep a precious commodity in the world today, but falling asleep with mindfulness is a key component of one of the Six tantric yogas of Naropa, the Yoga of ‘Clear Light’ or Dreamless Sleep. Every time we fall asleep with a relaxed and focused mind we are presented with a precious opportunity to glimpse the ‘clear light’ of our mind’s own pure nature, and this is exactly what the Weapon of Light is all about. So whether you are awake or sleeping, it is my hope that through Dr Nida’s concise instructions you will enjoy every opportunity to really relax and get to know your own luminous, limitless awareness!
(Dr Nida Chenagtsang teaching from the ‘Weapon of Light’ in the U.S. a few weeks ago)