By Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
Snow Lion Publications
605 West State Street
PO Box 6483
Ithaca, NY 14851
607 - 273 - 8519
Trade Paper, 176 Pages, Glossary.
I was a bit surprised when the editor of Diamond Fire asked me to write book reviews for him- on the subject of Buddhism! It’s not that I lack any familiarity with Eastern teachings. Yoga and meditation are practices I know a thing or two about. Plus, it is true that I’ve always noted a similarity between the oldest of Western philosophies (such as those of the ancient Gnostics) and some of the foundational Eastern philosophies. For instance, both Gnostics and Buddhists agree that our biggest problem- here in the physical world of suffering- is that we fall prey to the storms of our own passions. They also both believe that one reincarnates endlessly until one breaks free of the Great Wheel.
However, what I know about Buddhism- from the scholarly perspective- wouldn’t fill a review. Instead, I’ve been asked to read several books intended to introduce Buddhism to Western students, and to review them from my own peculiar Western perspective. If you are like me, and follow along with these books, it will be a learning experience for both of us.
Tenzin Wangyal’s book was the perfect place to start! Mr. Wangyal (Rinpoche is his title of respect) is a Master of the Tibetan Bon Tradition, yet specializes in teaching here in the West. He describes Bon as the indigenous spiritual tradition of Tibet- including a form of shamanic practice that extends at least seventeen thousand years into the past. It is this shamanic practice that forms the foundation of the lessons in the book- though he also relates the practice to the higher teachings such as Tantra and Dzogchen practice.
Like our Western mystical systems, the Bon Tradition recognizes five philosophical Elements. We share Earth, Air, Water, and Fire as the primary Elements of all things in creation. The Hermetist or Qabalist would easily recognize the description of the Elements as sacred “Lights” from which manifest all objects, ideas, and sensations.
However, we are offered a somewhat new interpretation of the Fifth Element. Here in the West, we tend to view this Element as “Spirit”- a kind of all-pervading force that underlies and empowers all created things. In some cases, we might even call it pure consciousness, the Soul of the World. By contrast, the Bon Tradition describes the Fifth Element as “Empty Space.” This is a revolutionary concept (for us over here)! Space- the one thing that exists in the absence of all other things. The one thing that predates all other things. Space is the plane within which the manifestations of the Four Lights arise. Without it, nothing can exist. It is the pure state of existence.
Taking the concept further, we find that this Fifth Element is also related to consciousness. Like the universe, the most basic and pure state of consciousness is emptiness. (The kind of consciousness we enjoyed in the womb, before the introduction of outside stimuli and the onset of personality.) This is the kind of calm emptiness that we must strive to achieve. Moreso, we must imprint ourselves with it- become emotionally attached to it. For, all things that arise in Space will shift and change and ultimately die. Space alone is indestructible, and abides forever unchanged. Attach yourself to this, and you can never suffer unhappiness due to its loss.
What is most interesting is that both Eastern and Western philosophies ultimately relate the Fifth Element with consciousness- suggesting that they are not attempting to describe two different things. Even the concept of pure space is not entirely alien to Westerners. Qabalists would call this fundamental empty space the “Ain” (Nothingness)- one of the highest manifestations of God. Like Elemental Spirit, the Ain is That from which all manifests, and into which all again dissolves.
I would highly recommend this book to any student of Western mysticism- especially traditions descended from Golden Dawn, Thelemic, and Neopagan roots. (All of these share a particular focus upon the Five Philosophical Elements.) For instance, students who have followed Donald Kraig’s “Elemental Exercises” (Modern Magick, Llewellyn) will feel right at home with Wangyal’s meditations for experiencing the Elemental Lights. (The instructions are so starkly similar, I tend to suspect a Tantric origin for the teachings Mr. Kraig relates in his lessons.)
The practices explored in Healing with Form, Energy, and Light have their parallels in our Western systems. However, the student can benefit greatly by the peculiar Eastern “twist” this book puts on subjects we thought long-familiar. Plus, it is a great primer for the Eastern philosophies- giving explanations as simple as possible (Buddhist concepts don’t always fit into English very well), and offering the student hands-on experiences at each step along the way. While the practice is stressed over the history and philosophy, the book still provides more than enough information for the student to continue their education. (There is even a glossary, which is helpful for this book and any other book about Buddhism you’ll explore.)
I’ve already recommended this one to my friends. Definitely a must-read- especially if you are a Western mystic seeking a good introduction to Eastern philosophy.