Ever since I read a book by the Dalai Lama I have been hooked on Tibetan Buddhism. I even spent a year as a Buddhist monk 2003/2004. I spent six years studying full time whilst living in a retreat hut at a Tibetan Buddhist centre in Queensland Australia, where I learned a great deal about the subject, and had some amazing realisations about my self and the world. I have since gone my own way trying to translate the deep wisdom I’ve found into understandable and modern ways.
Tibetan Buddhism is a unique depository of Eastern thought. The country is nestled between China and India, Kashmir and Nepal and has adopted elements of different traditions including Shaivism, Indian Tantra, Japanese Zen, of course Indian Buddhism. It also includes elements of the shamanistic tradition of Bon, which was native to Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism in the 8th century. Tibetan Buddhism is an eclectic mix of the best of the Orient, which can make it difficult to penetrate, so different Tibetan masters over the years have summed it up into several main categories. It has even become a curriculum of gradual stages to enlightenment, expressing all the great traditions in a step by step path to complete and full enlightenment. This blog is in that vein – trying to sum up the many and various practices of Tibetan Buddhism into an easy to understand spiritual path.
Buddhism has drawn from a variety of Eastern traditions
The four main spiritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism are Renunciation, Bodhicitta, Emptiness and Vajrayana.
Renunciation has the connotation of turning away from something. What is not as widely known is that it’s also a turning toward something. It means to turn away from worldly pursuits to achieve happiness, and turn toward inner and spiritual means to achieve happiness and fulfilment. It is the beginning of the spiritual quest after realising the limitations of wealth, fame and material possessions to bring lasting happiness.
Often in the West we think “If I’m just successful in my career and have abundant wealth, I will surely be really happy”. Of course, people who have achieved these measures of success have discovered the ancient truth for themselves; that these things are not inherently satisfying, and have no meaning other than what we attribute them. Sometimes it takes a ridiculously wealthy and successful person like Russell Brand to remind us of this truth:
“Increasingly I’ve realised; everybody has beauty within themselves, and if you find this and accept this, then you will be happy regardless of external attributes or material things.”
Happiness comes from within
‘Money can’t buy happiness’ is a cliché, however the Buddhists go further and meditate on the fact that everything changes, and therefore no material possession can bring lasting satisfaction.
It is written as a noble truth that all conditions of the world are unsatisfactory, constantly changing, and have no lasting substance. Through meditation and contemplating this noble truth, a person turns away from pursuing these things. Instead they turn towards what mystics and masters have advised will bring lasting happiness and fulfilment – or enlightenment – and freedom from clinging onto worldly conditions, in order to satisfy our desires.
When you are convinced of these facts right down to your bones, you have entered a spiritual path and have realised renunciation.
Renunciation frees us from perceived limitations and social conditionings
Bodhicitta is a type of great love and compassion that informs and motivates our spiritual pursuits. Upon reflection of the insubstantial nature of the world and the vicious cycle of looking for satisfaction in objects – which are inherently unsatisfying – we realise the unnecessary suffering of ourselves and everyone else in the world who is still trapped by the delusions of desirous attachment to things. This gives rise to a type of natural compassion that is motivated to help others, which is cultivated by first helping ourselves to become free of our own attachments.
The wish to be free to be the most benefit to all other beings is based on a recognition of the equality of all people. The intimate connection we have with every living creature comes from countless lifetimes of interrelating, our shared suffering, and our shared pursuit of happiness. We all want to be happy and we all want to avoid suffering, but unfortunately we are trapped in patterns that undermine our own, and others’ happiness. Bodhicitta is the courageous attitude that we are all in this together, and if I am to end suffering, I aim to end all suffering. Bodhicitta is therefore as humble as it is grand. Humbly bowing in respect to all living creatures in deep appreciation of our shared suffering and shared pursuit of emancipation. I cannot achieve my own peace when my brothers and sisters of the world are still trapped in suffering. It would be like taking all the life boats on a sinking ship just for yourself.
We need not be rich to give the gift of compassion
Luckily this type of great love and compassion for all beings is also a great protector of our own minds. It’s impossible to feel love and hate for someone at the same time. When we can love even our enemies, our own minds and hearts are transformed with resilience and purpose, helping to make life meaningful. As the Dalai Lama has assured us:
“I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquillity comes from the development of love and compassion.”
As the Dalai Lama has jokingly said “for something that is indescribable there sure are a lot of books written about it.” He is referring to Sunyata or what has been most commonly translated as emptiness. Realising the truth of emptiness gives rise to the deepest wisdom, and the power to purify ignorance and transcend suffering. Therefore it is probably the most widely practised meditation and contemplation of Tibetan Buddhism.
In its simplest form, emptiness is the fact that everything changes and therefore has no lasting identity or substance. When we look at anything and label it, that thing is in no way fixed and what we are labelling is the present moment appearance of something that is in flux. Because labels don’t change but things do, we only get an approximation of the world, yet we are convinced that we are seeing the whole truth of things.
Monks commonly practise impermanence by making sand Mandalas, which they destroy upon completion
Another way of looking at emptiness, is that the map (labels/thoughts) are not the territory. No matter how good the picture or representation of something is, it is always different from the lived experience of it. That is why with mindfulness, we are taught to try and be aware of the present moment in a non judgemental way, and therefore taking in more of reality and less of our opinions about reality. Reality is only truly touched fully when we experience things directly without the mediation of language. Seng Tsan a great Zen master says:
“If you want to experience the truth simply give up your opinions for or against anything and the truth with reveal itself.”
All of human knowledge is stored in language and concepts, so what happens when you give up the obvious intelligence of concepts? A huge void opens up. This void transcends language and concepts, and is the direct experience of countless mystics throughout the ages.
Presence and non-judgement allows space for the truth
It turns out the void is not empty at all. Those who have directly experienced this transcendent reality report a fullness, an interconnectivity of all things, and most commonly of all, a deep sense of love and peace are found in this most mystical of experiences. Meditating on emptiness by seeing things without judgement or labels, and particularly seeing yourself without any judgement or labels, opens up a whole new mysterious world filled with its own deep wisdom, unconditional love and radiant bliss.
Literally it means the diamond path, and it is usually practised after the realisations of renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness. The void filled with love, wisdom and bliss are understood to be the nature of all beings and all things, and is sometimes called the ground or source of being. Vajrayana is a skillful means to directly relate with this underlying reality, and bring it into the world through visualisation, mantras and blissful energy.
We have the power to create that which we focus our attention on
The foundation of Vajrayana is faking it until you make it, or in other words, visualising yourself as an emanation or extension of the underlying fabric of reality which has been understood to be void, love and bliss. There are many different deities or enlightened figures in Tibetan Buddhism which a practitioner can visualise themselves as, but essentially it is about visualising and imagining yourself as a fully enlightened being made of love and light. As the modern saying goes ‘whatever you can conceive, you can achieve’ so there’s great intelligence in this ancient inner technology, which employs the imagination to conceive yourself as an enlightened being; radiating love, bliss and benefitting every single sentient being in the universe.
The second stage of Vajrayana, is using the bodies subtle energy system to help connect with bliss and access ever deeper states of consciousness. By working with energy channels in the body and Chakras, the meditator experiences the unity of all beings, and transforms mundane sexual desire into a powerful fuel, igniting a super charged path to the enlightened state. This untapped blissful energy is within all beings, and Vajrayana brings it to the surface where it is literally working with the blissful rays of the underlying source of reality. As Lama Yeshe says:
“We all have a tremendous energy within us more powerful than an atomic bomb which is a fantastic resource to achieve the highest goal of enlightenment.”
With practise, we can all learn to harness the power of our minds
Bringing Eastern Practices and Teachings to the Western World
I have practised all four of these spiritual paths, and can testify that they are extremely beneficial and meaningful. I teach these forms of meditation, and encourage people to engage with them to the best of their ability. Each one contains its own wisdom and has its own positive effects on my life. After many years of practising these spiritual paths, I stumbled upon the secret teachings of Tibetan Dzogchen in books hidden at the back of the library in the Tibetan Buddhist centre where I lived. Dzogchen, which is sometimes referred to as the highest path of Tibetan Buddhism, contains all the above gradual paths, but it also contains a radical meditation on the non dual, or instantaneous path to enlightenment.
The radical instantaneous approach recognises that renunciation, love and compassion, the void filled with wisdom and bliss, is actually already existing in a complete and eternal way within all sentient beings. The teachings say that all that is required is to give up all pursuits and efforts to get anywhere else, and instead rest in your natural state of completion and fulfilment. Because our nature is already perfect – sometimes referred to as pure awareness, or simply ‘Being’ – we only have to stop all fabrication and manipulation, and come to rest in the great natural peace of who we truly are.
Love is our true essence
After years of effort, study, retreats, and thousands of hours of practise, I did finally rest and discovered the truth of these teachings. To this day I am not sure if I could realise it instantaneously because of all the previous work I had done, or if it was there all along waiting for me to see it, so today I teach both the gradual, and instantaneous approaches in order to meet people where they are at, and with what they need at the time.
Some years ago I attended a yoga class where my flamboyant artist friend and yoga teacher shared an interesting sequence called The Five Tibetans. I immediately fell in love with this simple, short and totally useable sequence and it became a great resource that I turn to and use for a quick yoga pick me up. For some time it was a daily sequence, but it’s always been one I return to, and a sequence that I teach my students as a self empowering, simple yoga ritual they can do on their own at home.
So what are the Five Tibetans?
The Five Tibetans or the Five Rites of Rejuvenation, is a system of five, believed to be Tibetan, Yogic exercises said to be over 2500 years old. You flow through the five exercises almost in a meditative dance. Each exercise stimulates a particular chakra or hormonal system and revitalises certain organs, so that the five rites together form a complete workout for the body as a whole.
This series of movements also known as “The fountain of youth” are credited with the ability to heal the body, balance the chakras and reverse the ageing process in just ten minutes a day.
The movements are also known as “The Fountain of Youth”
According to legend, a British explorer learned the rites in a Himalayan Monastery from Tibetan monks who had excellent health despite their advanced age. Some skeptics cast doubt upon the origins of the practice, but no matter the exact source, there is no uncertainty about the great health benefits of the practice. Peter Kelder first publicised the Tibetan Rites in 1939 in a publication, The Eye of Revelation. The sequence was later popularised through a book, The Five Tibetans, written by yoga teacher Chris Kilham, who says we will never know their true origins:
“Perhaps they come from Nepal or Northern India…As the story has it, they were shared by Tibetan lamas; beyond that I know nothing of their history. Personally, I think these exercises are most likely Tibetan in origin. The issue at hand, though, is not the lineage of the Five Tibetans. The point is [their] immense potential value for those who will clear 10 minutes a day to practice.” – Chris Kilham
Yoga teachers are in agreement, the sequence is a simple yet incredibly, even deceptively powerful one that creates a dynamic energetic effect in the body increasing the flow of prana or chi up the spine and through the chakras, energising every cell in your body.
Turning back the clock
According to the Tibetan lamas, the only difference between youth and old age is the spin rate of the chakras (the body’s seven major energy centres).This specific routine is said by lamas to stimulate all seven chakras to spin rapidly at the same rate. They believe that if any one of the chakras is blocked and its natural spin rate slowed, then vital life energy will be unable to circulate and so ageing and illness will set in. The Five Tibetans are called the rites of rejuvenation because the lamas say the ageing process is stopped by the unblocking and activation of the spinning of the chakras due to this sequence. Recent medical research has uncovered convincing evidence that the ageing process is hormone-regulated.The sequence also normalises hormonal imbalances in the body which also hold the key to lasting youth, vitality and wellbeing.
Tibetan monks had excellent health despite their advanced age
As simple as the Five Tibetans may seem, they have a profound effect on the energy and chakra system of the body, stimulating the electrical energy of the chakras in the same way as switching on a light switch sets off a flow of electrical energy.
“The Five Tibetans is simple, practical, effective and certainly mind/body altering. If you would love to become rejuvenated, remain calm, feel more vitality, be more flexible and simply look your absolute best, then now there is a new way to experience a greater state of wellbeing that takes just minutes a day, but lasts a lifetime.” … Dr. John F. Demartini
How to practice the Five Tibetans
The Five Tibetans have similarities to some traditional yoga practices: Tibetan 1 is basically Sufi whirling. Tibetan 3 is essentially the camel pose. Tibetan 4 is like an upward table, and Tibetan 5 is a smooth flow of up dog and down dog
Stand erect with arms strong, outstretched and horizontal with the shoulders. Now spin around in a clockwise direction until you become slightly dizzy. You can employ a ballet-like technique of keeping your eyes on one spot and then returning to that spot when you turn your head in a full revolution.There is only one caution: you must turn from left to right.
Breathing: Inhale and exhale deeply as you do the spins.
Lie down full length on the floor or bed. Place the hands flat down alongside of the hips. Fingers should be kept close together with the finger-tips of each hand turned slightly toward one another. Raise the feet until the legs are straight up. If possible, let the feet extend back a bit over the body toward the head, but do not let the knees bend. Hold this position for a moment or two and then slowly lower the feet to the floor, and for the next several moments allow all of the muscles in the entire body to relax completely. Then perform the Rite all over again. For greater core strength activation you can lower the legs without touching the floor and then using your belly and your in breath, raise the legs up, in a continuous cycle. Be sure to breath out as you lower the legs. An easier version is to have your hands underneath the buttocks and a more challenging version is to have the arms stretched above the head as you raise your legs.
Breathing: Breathe in deeply as you lift your head and legs and exhale as you lower your head and legs.
Kneel on the floor with the body erect. The hands should be placed on the backs of your thigh muscles. Incline the head and neck forward, tucking your chin in against your chest. Then fold the the head and neck backward, arching the spine. Your toes should be curled under through this exercise. As you arch, you will brace your arms and hands against the thighs for support. After the arching return your body to an erect position and begin the rite all over again.
Breathing: Inhale as you arch the spine and exhale as you return to an erect position.
Sit erect on the floor with your feet stretched out in front of you. The legs must be perfectly straight, with the backs of the knees well down or close to the floor. Place the hands flat on the rug, fingers together, and the hands pointing outward slightly. Chin should be on chest and the head forward. Now gently raise the body on an in breath, using your core strength of your belly to lift the pelvis, and at the same time bend the knees so that the legs from the knees down are practically straight up and down like an upward table. The arms, too, will also be vertical while the body from shoulders to knees will be horizontal. As the body is raised upward allow the head gently to fall backward so that the head hangs backward as far as possible when the body is fully horizontal. Hold this position for a few moments, return to first position on the out breath, and relax for a few moments before performing the Rite again. When the body is pressed up to complete horizontal position, you can tense every muscle in the body.
Breathing: Breathe in as you raise up, hold your breath as you tense the muscles, and breathe out fully as you come down.
Place the hands on the floor about two feet apart. Then, with the legs stretched out to the rear with the feet also about two feet apart in a downward dog, push the body, and especially the hips, up as far as possible, rising on the toes and hands. At the same time the head should be brought so far down that the chin comes up against the chest. Next, allow the body to come slowly down to a ‘sagging’ position in an upward dog, with only the toes on the floor. Bring the head up, causing it to be drawn as far back as possible. The muscles should be tensed for a moment when the body is at the highest point, and again at the lowest point.”Be sure not to strain the lower back, by bringing strong flowing movement to the upper shoulders. Those with lower back injuries can bend the legs as they go into upward dog.
Breathing: Breathe in deeply as you raise the body, and exhale fully as you lower the body.
Gain a more focused and purposeful mind
As with all yoga practice, it is important to synchronise your breath with the movement. It’s best to do the exercises in the morning because they get your energy going. But it’s highly likely you will fall in love with the sequence and want to repeat it during the day. To begin with it is best to complete five to seven repetitions of each rite every day and to work up to 21 repetitions of each of the exercises. Usually this takes about 10 – 12 weeks. A lot of people are keen to reach 21 repetitions quickly, but it is best to gradually increase the repetitions. The recommended slow build up process allows your body to develop a strong foundation upon which to improve your flexibility. And it also is important due to the effects of the Rites themselves. They can initiate many changes in your bodies energy and balance systems. Although this varies from person to person, it is generally best to allow your body time to adjust.
It’s important to ay attention to what your body is telling you and not to strain or force any position that causes pain. There is also a simple and adapted version of the Five Tibetans for those who have injuries or cannot perform the sequence.
When you make this sequence part of your daily practice, you can experience an overall improvement in your health and wellbeing and perhaps the most important benefit, is a dramatic increase in your levels of energy. Other great benefits are a greater resilience to stress and the ability to stay centred. As with all yoga practice greater flexibility in body and mind are usual. Most people report a more focused and purposeful mind and greater awareness, which then creates a happier and more fulfilling life. This sequence really improves the quality of your life.
Experience an overall improvement in your health and wellbeing
A complete and balanced practice
One of the great things about the Five Tibetans, is it is a quick and simple practice that can be done by anyone, regardless of age or fitness levels. It is an incredibly simple ten minute routine that can easily be slotted into your daily life, yet will have major spin offs in all areas. Its free, and its yours. A self empowering practice you can do on your own anywhere and at any time! The Five Tibetans strengthens and stretches all the main muscles in the body. Just as Sun Salutations make up a complete sequence, the Five Rites are a complete and balanced practice.
The 5 Tibetan Rites
In just ten minutes a day you can:
Feel younger and more powerful
Slow down the aging process
Improve strength and flexibility
Calm the mind
Create greater mental clarity and focus
Improve your breathing so its deeper, slower and conscious
Strengthen lower back and core muscles
Improve your libido
Supports menopause and hormonal balance
Be more centred and at peace
Lose weight and develop muscle tone and core strength