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27 May 2021
18 min 14 sec
Video Overview
Geoffrey Samuel, Maria Kozhevnikov


In his talk, Dr. Samuel elaborates on several points related to Tantric practices and scientific understanding of meditation. In particular, issues such as the lack of a category in western science to place tantric practices, their social context, and their potential to enhance cognition and creativity are discussed.

Speaker Bio: Geoffrey Samuel

Geoffrey Samuel is Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University, Wales, U.K. and Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney, Australia. His academic career has been in social anthropology and religious studies. Current research interests include Tibetan healing and medical practices, and the dialogue between Buddhism and science. He is the author of Mind, Body and Culture (1990), Civilized Shamans (1993), Tantric Revisionings (2005), The Origins of Yoga and Tantra (2008) and Introducing Tibetan Buddhism (2012). His most recent publications are the co- edited volumes About Padmasambhava (with Jamyang Oliphant; Garuda Verlag, 2020) and Hidden Lands in Himalayan Myth and History (with Frances Garrett and Elizabeth MacDougal; Brill, 2020), and the translation Another End of the World is Possible (Polity, 2020).

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  • So, what I want to do in this talk is to make a few simple points, which I think can easily perhaps get lost in the scientific understanding of Esoteric So, what I want to do in this talk is to make a few simple points, which I think can easily perhaps get lost in the scientific understanding of Esoteric Vajrayãna practices, to use the terminology of this conference.
  • I am aware that for some of the Buddhist specialists, particularly here, some of what I say may be obvious, my apologies there. But it may be useful to have some of these things stated explicitly. I think the first point, and this perhaps comes to this business of Esoteric Vajrayãna practices is that Western science doesn’t have a clear category in which to put these categories practices, were still I think, very much working out what’s going on. They, they can, in some generic sense be referred to as meditation.
  • I shall also speak of, self cultivation or mind body cultivation, and similar terms, which get used perhaps more in the East Asian context. But the understanding of meditation is also not straightforward. If we look at terms in the indigenous languages that correspond to the second generic area, and just such as Sanskrit and Tibetan terms, such as nejang, yoga, gompa, Sanskrit bhavana or Mental Cultivation are something that we find that what they refer to as the practices and the social contexts in which their practice differ a lot from what we’re familiar with in Western countries as meditation.
  • And so if your model of meditation is something like Vipassana or the mindfulness-based techniques, which are quite closely related to Vipassana. This is quite a bit different. Historically, in countries such as Tibet or Bhutan, these practices were undertaken by relatively small numbers of people generally as part of the training for a role as a spiritual practitioner.
  • And in these countries, practitioners and meditation could be but were not necessarily celibate monastics, they were no less training as part of the community, even if they were lay people who might marry and have families. They are expected to be able to exercise spiritual powers of various kinds, such as healing and protection on behalf of their clients.
  • And we’ll be talking a bit about healing in the conference. And so overall, this was a social role, which was valued by the society as a whole. And it was premised at least in theory, on achieving a level of attainment in meditation practices, such as Tantric Yoga Triana, the esoteric practices we’re talking about here. People were not generally expected to undertake these practices for personal therapeutic reasons. There again, it’s a bit different from the the Westland situation of much meditation versus much meditation practices in the West.
  • They were doing it as part of acquiring a valued and respected role of service to the society, which might also carry high social and political status, particularly in the case of reincarnate Lamas who were kind of born to the role, but many practitioners were not in that particular category. So this is the role of the lama or the tantric practitioner. And it generally involves many years of rigorous training. Gilson Rinpoche has talked about two full three year retreats as more or less the minimum through attaining competence as a tantric practitioner. And in a way, that’s when you start the job, start learning on it.
  • At the same time, the social context even in Bhutan, which is the only traditional boundary on estate, which has come through the last century, more or less on its own terms, is very different from that in the past. And that’s part of the current vulnerability of these practices, while being a lama or tantric practitioner is still a valued role. In Bhutan, Modern Life offers obviously many other possible careers and choices. Many Bhutanese have studied overseas Bhutan is open in many ways to the outside world.
  • It’s still true and I think it’s important that these esoteric practices are part of acquiring skills accomplishing specific abilities, which will ideally be of use to the wider community. And I, and it’s the, in other words that specific abilities are, are quite important. And that’s why I think it makes sense to look at this area as the conference does, not only in terms of achieving consciousness beyond the normal limits of space and time, but also as involving the achievement of levels of performance, cognitive capacities that are not normally accessible by human beings. And I’m quoting from the program.
  • The conference is innovative I think in using this framing of Vajrayãna esoteric practices, as practices to enhance cognition and creativity. And this is an orientation that grows out of various important work and publications in this area. And I think it’s a really significant approach, in particular, because it widens the frame of discussion outwards from the question of the scientific understanding of Buddhahood or awakening, which tends to focus on issues of non dual consciousness, transcendent consciousness and and I think can be quite problematic anyway.
  • At the same time, we do need to be aware that these practices are premised on the central goal of awakening or Buddhahood. If the practitioner acquires exceptional abilities, cognitive capacities, levels of creativity, these are seen as things which have been achieved while on the path to the complete awakening of Buddhahood. And this awakening is a normative and ultimate goal as a body of practices as a whole. This is part of the ethical and moral dimension of these practices, the motivation for achieving Buddhahood, the Enlightenment impulse on bodhichitta is essentially universal compassion for the sufferings of living beings.
  • And this also endorses the social role of the lama, the nagpa, the tantric practitioner, as using the past, they’ve acquired the human benefit or benefits of beings more widely, this ethical dimension is important. And I would say that the practices cannot really be considered independently from it. So how this fits into a scientific approach is a challenge, which perhaps will come up in various vices discussion in the course of the conference. That it, it gives the whole thing a slightly different flavor from a lot of Western scientific research, perhaps.
  • A second issue here is that there are numerous specific lineages of esoteric practice in Vajrayana Buddhism, with both major and minor differences between them. These are lineages of initiation, but also of instruction. Note, that term perhaps needs a little bit of unpacking, because it’s, it’s tied up with this question of the key role of the relationship between the teacher and the word lama means teacher, it translates Sanskrit guru, no, it’s come to me many other things too.
  • And the student, this is a kind of almost a quasi kinship relationship. And this is like this term lineage, which can also refer to family and continuity is used. And so the lama teaches the student, teaches a group of students in a retreat group in a context which we’ll probably be talking about a little as we go along, in the conference. Some of the instruction is written down, as the parts are not. Lineage is regarded as very important, because it provides some security of proper connection with the tradition and proper training. The link between teacher and student is critically important. And part of this is that, while much can be learned by written or verbal instruction, much is also learned by internalizing the example of your teacher. He or she is the model you are following, I think there is a kind of mimetic aspect to a lot of this. And the Buddha is the ultimate example or model which your teacher is, if you'd life, channeling or representing, so which you are accessing through him or her.
  • And this is the basis of the lama'i neljor or guru yoga practices which in which you regard your teacher as a form of the Buddha. But the the point I want to focus on here is that generally speaking this gives an emotional component to the practices which is very important too.
  • And this also, I think links to the the ethical dimension, because the Buddha represents compassion and the ethical dimension of the practices. So again, these aren’t simply cognitive processes, although we may be focusing on their cognitive aspects, matters such as devotion to the teacher, the development of compassion for the sufferings of living beings, and so on, are a critical part of the whole undertaking.
  • While the generic similarities between lineages, there are also many differences. There are various ways to classify these and I’m not going to go into them here, the situation is made more complex in the teachers may study and acquire teachings from different lineages, and be able to pass these on to their students. It’s thought of as perfectly possible to practice within a single lineage and to achieve everything in effect that Vajrayana Buddhism has to offer. But having access to several lineages and sets of teachings, and having undertaken series practice in several lineages is common.
  • And the idea is that they are different paths to the common goal of buddahood, but also through teacher means that a particular student may be more suitable for one path than another and so you can leave that student onto a particular path. And so the, the great Tibetan teacher Shakya Shri who was the principal teacher of Gyeltsen Rinpoche previous reincarnation and Gyeltsen Rinpoche's own teachers are also closely linked in many cases to Shakya Shri was known for teaching both Chakchen or Mahãmudra and Dzokchen practices in accordance with the abilities of the particular students. And he wrote texts in both area and so on and passed on in his lineages in both areas.
  • Now, these are the lineages that derived from different aspects of the Tibetan tradition, new tantra on the one hand, and the old tantra and or tonal lineages on the other. In practice students on ease and password learn many of the common practices of adrionna Buddhism, including versions probably of tomorrow, and Dream Yoga, along with various healing practices. But it’s worth being aware students are not all doing the same thing here.
  • And I’d like to go on to talk a little about the question question of what might be involved in the scientific study of a meditation practice.
  • So the first point, I think, comes out of what I’ve been saying, so far, we have to be really careful about considering practices in isolation, either from other practices, they form part of the regime or curriculum, or from the wider life of a monastic or lay practitioner community, or from this emotional, ethical dimension of the whole business. And in many ways, scientific approaches tend to involve separating, isolating, treating as an isolate. We need I think, to bear in mind that this is only a partial view of what’s going on.
  • I think we need to be cautious about whether everybody is doing the same thing, even when they’re in the same lineage and have the same teacher. And even if you’re doing tummo, there are other different traditions of tummo or Dzokchen, instructions, or words written or spoken, they may also be gestures, there may be physical imitation. People internalize these inevitably, idiosyncratically. They have different bodies, they’ve learned to use them in different ways. Maybe these are obvious points that have some worth, occasionally bearing in mind.
  • And and finally, I think we need to be cautious about the relationship between what’s happening from a scientific point of view, for example, particularly from the point of view of neuroscience, and what the practitioner is doing in his or her own awareness. The point of the practices the inner transformation, it brings about the instructions may have an oblique relationship to this. So for example, in the whole question of the subtle body concepts and what they they mean, and Lawrence Kim and I have talked a little about this in the past and, and what is actually involved in meditation, you’re meditating on the the chakras. And the internal channels of the body. What does this do? Because the point is, what transformation does it bring about?
  • As much as that there is a subtle body in any simple sense? Do the colors matter of the number of debtors in each of the chakras do due to the debt is that you’re using data to make a difference? I think the tradition would expect that they would. If these things do matter, is this cultural or universal? Is it because you’ve learned it in a particular way? Or are we picking up on on something which is more generic to the human organism? So there’s a whole series of issues here.
  • As I’ve said, here, the instructions are a guide along the path, not a scientific description. Another comment here, if we’re looking at a process, which follows Tibetan some Bhutanese, Vajrayãna practitioners, in traditional societies, encompasses body speech and mind, which is, in some ways, shorthand for the, the body mind organism as a whole, then it probably is good to look at that organism as a whole. And I think there’s a question of the loss of neuroscience, focusing on the brain.
  • And Maria has has extended that focus very considerably in her work to look at the neuroscience nervous system as a whole and the way in which that reflects the processes are being undertaken here. And I think that’s a really important move, I think it’s important to look at the, the, the organism as a whole and as as many as as many levels as we can. And that’s something I might talk about a bit in some of the discussion of the conference. That’s certainly something I’m quite interested in.
  • And finally, I think it’s worth always being aware of this question of consciousness and how we fit it into our models. Inevitably, many scientific models are reductionist, when it comes to consciousness. And nevertheless, from a Tibetan point of view, what’s happening is largely being driven at the level of consciousness and the mind. And this is obviously a big an open question, which can go in lots of directions, but again, I think it’s something that we should keep in mind, we shouldn’t simply allow them to, to fall out of their awareness.
  • Okay, well, that’s more or less all I had to say in in this talk, I just saw these might be some useful points to, to bear in mind in looking at these esoteric practices in scientific terms. So I shall close that. I hope it was of some use to some of you