Global Resilience Solutions > 2015 > May

A “Normal” that Will Blow Your Mind: Life in Tibet Before the Invasion

Most of us brought up in modern society are so far removed from what it is to live in an authentic spiritual culture that we simply have no coordinates for understanding what it would mean to be surrounded by people wholeheartedly dedicated to striving for enlightenment.

That is exactly the world that Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche shows us in his memoir Blazing Splendor. Recounting his and his family’s experiences during his childhood in pre-occupation Tibet, he describes a world almost beyond our ability to process.

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To start with, not only he but many of the men in his family are tulkus, reincarnations of important spiritual teachers. Even his grandmother was an important transmitter of his spiritual lineage and a respected traditional physician.

At the age of six or seven, he begins meditating in imitation of his father and uncle who are both advanced masters. Although at that time he doesn’t understand the details of the process, he recounts that when he was old enough to learn, most of what he learned merely explained what he’d already experienced.

Later in his childhood, he develops a degree of clairvoyance, and uses it to impress the people around him. However, he realises that this kind of knowledge without the wisdom or the intention to actually help people is worthless, a kind of charlatanism. Similarly, we meet a group of nuns who skewer every spiritual teacher who comes calling with questions designed to separate the genuine guru from the pretentious imposter.

The spiritual practices we encounter in this world can be quite alarming or incredible to a Western reader, from the Chöd practice of all-night graveyard meditation battling demonic manifestations to the rare practice of spending a year at a time meditating walled up in a cave with just a small opening to pass food in. Nevertheless, the results of these methods seem undeniable.

As do the incredible attainments we encounter: for example, every winter, the nuns of Gebchak would practice tummo, the legendary psychic heat yoga, outdoors, drying wet sheets on their naked bodies all night, using only the power of the mind. Urgyen Rinpoche notes, almost in passing, that only 200 of the 800 female practitioners there were proficient enough to do this. But think of it! In a single place, there were 200 women so advanced in Highest Yoga Tantra that they could sit outside naked through a sub-zero winter night while drying cold, wet sheets draped over them. Any “normal” person would have certainly died of exposure and yet they were completely at ease and unharmed!

Orders of beings that the Western mind does not even acknowledge appear frequently in the lives of Urgyen Rinpoche’s family. In a world of rather vocal nature spirits, spontaneously-appearing spiritual objects, incarnate dakinis and impromptu prophecies by teenage girls indicating the locations of long-lost texts, life was certainly interesting.

The Tibetan attitude toward death was very different from our own, with accomplished masters leaving notes about where they will be reborn, and even the occasional identification of a farm animal as the reincarnation of a dead acquaintance. The sense of continuity from one lifetime to the next is something completely removed from our experience. Urgyen Rinpoche’s own father was able to tell that someone he had been told was dead was still alive, because he had the ability to see when any human spirit in the area left its body.

Real Understanding

No one can fully understand a tradition without having at least some idea of how its worldview really plays out outside of the context of modern culture. Too often when we study ancient traditions, our ideas about how they view the world are cartoonish projections from our own experience. In order to get past this, we have to develop the ability to abstract ourselves from our own life experience and cultural context and put ourselves in the mind of a completely different culture. Until we do this, we will always be to some extent prisoners of our own context.

Most people throughout history have thought that the ideas and worldview they happen to have been exposed to are right. To escape this trap, we need to abstract ourselves from our own ideas and objectively look for the things that are of universal value in each context. We don’t claim that Tibetan culture was perfect- but much of what it achieved is a powerful antidote to the most unfortunate elements of our own.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


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