The drala principle refers to a body of teachings the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa presented in the last decade of his life, from 1978 to 1986. The roots of the drala principle precede the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet and are found in the indigenous traditions of that country - as they are in all countries. The drala principle is applicable, not to Buddhist practitioners alone, but to anyone. These teachings speak to the heart, whether one is, so to speak, religiously, artistically or politically motivated.
Drala is the elemental presence of the world that is available to us through sense perceptions. When we open to trees, flowers, a creek or clouds we encounter an actual wisdom, though one that is not separate from our own. Beholding a river is much more than merely looking at a river; potentially, we are meeting the dralas. A friend of mine was once with her family in upstate New York. It was winter and they had hiked into a forest. The landscape was one of cold and snow, whiteness and silence, birch trees. Astonished by the pristine beauty, my friend realized it was her duty - not just to notice this beauty - but to stop and linger with it. To let it penetrate her. To listen. We fail to see one of our first responsibilities to the world is an aesthetic one.
In the drala teachings, each of the senses is considered an "unlimited field of perception" in which there are sights, sounds and feelings 'we have never experienced before" - no one has ever experienced! Each sense moment, if we are present for it, is a gate into the elemental wisdom of the world, even a cold sip of coffee could ignite the experience of Yeats: "While on the shop and street I gazed / My body of a sudden blazed." Every perception is a pure perception; from the feel of a meager pebble stuck in our shoe to the meow of a house cat. Through this kind of perception we discover that we live in a vast, singular and unexplored world.
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To make a stone stonier, that is the purpose of art. Viktor Shklovski.
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Sometimes a stone, a tree, a teacup or a violin processes an intangible presence, a numinousity, that cannot be explained. The presence might not always be there, or only be there for a short period of time, but that presence may refer to another dimension of the drala principle. Just as our tangible world is populated - and sometimes densely populated - with people and other sentient creatures, the intangible or "invisible world" (invisible to most of us) is densely populated as well, and among these beings, entities, or spirits are classes of beings, or qualities of being, called dralas. Katumblies, kachinas, kami, gnomes, elves, angels, gods. Any being who acts on behalf of the non-dualistic and compassionate nature of existence could be considered a drala. The dralas are not really part of some other world, but latent everywhere. The dralas, as Chögyam Trungpa so often said, want very much to meet us.
Using metaphors in the form of words, names and especially mantras or seed-syllables traditionally plays a central part in calling to the dralas, announcing our interest in meeting them, our availability. One example of the fertility of the drala principle is the Ganges River, perhaps historically home to the world's largest population of dralas! Itself a drala. This river, so long adored (and now like most rivers, so under siege by pollution and human disregard of its essential sacredness) traditionally has one-hundred and eight names, each of them a form of praise and, in that it speaks of a specific quality, the name of a drala(s) as well:
Visnu-padabja-sambhuta : Born from the lotus like foot of Visnu
Himancalendra-tanaya : Daughter of the Lord of Himalaya
Ksira-subhra : White as milk
Nataibhiti-hrt : Carrying away fear
Ramya : Delightful
Atula : Peerless Japa Muttering : Whispering
Jagan-matr : Mother of what lives or moves
Ablusion sandals. Bursa, Turkey.
The drala principle, in the sense I am using this term, refers to a set of teachings the Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa presented to his students beginning in 1978. In particular, during the "Kalapa Assembly" gatherings in 1978, 1979 and 1980 he gave extensive lectures on drala, a Tibetan word that means "above" or "beyond" aggression. The drala principle is a particular way of describing the experience of non-duality. Wisdom, which is non-duality, is experienced directly through our sense perceptions as well as through wisdom beings, the dralas. These wisdom beings, as Chögyam Trungpa spoke of them, might be as mundane and localized as dralas of "stoves, tents... pots and laundry" or they could be the Holy Ghost him/herself who animated the visions and insights of George Fox, the founder of the Quaker religion (a denomination based on non-violence and the experience of spirit).
I was in attendance during Chögyam Trungpa's first talk on the drala principle. Many of his early students - and I'm sure this is true among students of all great masters - speak of the "original" teachings of Chögyam Trungpa as something they are keen to follow and uphold. I believe the way "original" is most correctly used is personally, otherwise this usage tends to invalidate the experience of those who have a different experience of original, as well as those who came later, or who perhaps never met the teacher but feel her or him in their lives. In this sense, "original" means primordial, a particular imprint one received from the teacher that animates ones life. Just as many "Jungian" traditions have arisen in the wake of Carl Jung, each person who was or is a student of Chögyam Trungpa received uniquely personal imprints that not only animate them, but is their responsibility to make a contribution to. Hearing the word drala, and what Chögyam Trungpa had to say about it, was certainly an original imprint for me!
I have been drawn to explore the "universality" of the drala principle because that is the understanding I have of what Chögyam Trungpa presented. In his talks, though he of course drew parallels and linkages with Tibetan Buddhism, most of the examples he cited of the experiencing the dralas were drawn from outside his own tradition: George fox, who proclaimed the spiritual reality and necessity of the Holy Ghost, the Oglala Lakota elder Black Elk and his visions, the Hellenistic and Roman pagan tradition and the sadness of the destruction of their rites and temples, the Kabbalistic tradition with its deity Mithra. He even spoke of Jehova as a drala we could meet! As he stressed, "The drala principle exists everywhere - always, everywhere."
Experience has shown me that the dralas will make themselves felt in our lives if we have a longing and openness toward them. It's not necessary to have the foggiest idea of who they are as much as it is to trust the moments that arise in which we feel them. Along with those moments comes a kind of crossroads or "synchronistic short-circuit." Intuition in our life-events arises suddenly and unexpectedly and asks us to act and commit ourselves to it (the intuition). It is a sudden opportunity to escape habit and conventional belief. This is little different than falling in love; we can never predict or know in advance who we will fall in love with or how it will happen. It's an accident. The drala principle is love. We fall into it through our heart, but it takes us - ironically, because it is so personal - into a life far beyond the personal. To answer the call of the dralas often means to find one's personal life turned inside out!
I've always loved Gary Snyder's definition of meditation, which he calls simply "attention to consciousness itself," an innate part of being alive. "We've been doing it for forty or fifty-thousand years," he wrote in Earth House Hold; "Meditation is as natural to human beings as soaring in circles is to hawks and eagles or taking naps is to bears."
Through the practice of mindfulness, one begins to recognize the passing nature of thoughts, a recognition which brings moments of sudden freedom and openness. This recognition, the product of our innate insight arises without content. It is awareness. A moment of awake. Every time we recognize moments of awake, we "reset" ourselves. Our life offers continuous opportunities to reset, a process that is free and that we have a right to exercise, in the same way we have a "right" to breathe. Not to exercise it is like gradual suffocation, denying ourselves access to... ourselves.
Curiously, taking a short nap is an ideal way to reset. In her essay, What are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them, Gertrude Stein wrote, "Picasso once remarked I do not care who it is that has or does influence me as long as it is not myself." When we wake up from nap - or anytime we pass from sleep into waking consciousness - for that moment, we are not ourselves. That is it often jarring, bewildering or even frightening to cross this threshold indicates this: we've lost track of who we are for a moment. That panic or uncertainty is the openness we have momentarily fallen into. If we train ourselves to notice what does influence us in such a moment, to catch, as it were, our immediate insight or "first thought" we begin to restore the incessant creativity of vertical time into our consciousness. That insight, unlike the habitual story-lines of discursive thought, is a fresh, unmediated "message." You could say it is a thought of the dralas.
There is something equally significant that occurs in the nap (or "mindful rest"); we re-enter our body. Horizontal time is the forward momentum of stress, drive, ambition, anxiety, type-A behavior, of our perhaps most ingrained acquired conditioning, doing. A nap cuts this momentum the way an ax blade might slice a garden hose, severing the water pressure. The break in our thought patterns goes hand in hand with relaxation, and in the simplicity we did nothing to bring about except lay down and close our eyes, we enter our body. To do this even once a day is a revolutionary act.
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In the last year of his life I had begun to study with the Zen teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi. In his lyrical directness one felt the drala principle and saw it revealed, especially in Kobun Roshi's lack of agenda. A question might prompt him to do a calligraphy and from the calligraphy would emerge an "answer." On one of his talks, for instance, he drew attention to the fact of how we always think we "are bad" and the teacher is someone who tells is otherwise, but he added, "Don't misunderstand -- this teacher is not always a person. It can embrace you like morning dew in a field, and you get a strange feeling, Oh, this is it, my teacher is this field."
In one of Kobun's classes we were practicing meditation, as we always did for a period of time, and after the session, Kobun said, "They are very interested in you when you sit." What a remarkable thing to realize or to begin to trust in: when we release ourselves from engaging with our habitual thought stream, other "beings" become interesting is us. If that is so, then why? The only answer is that in those moments we become available and the dralas are longing to meet us.
In the moments of reset we become a host for the dralas. And the only sacrifice we need to make in order to receive these guest is to release the hold on the way we usually think, on how we cling to our thought process. That is a very small sacrifice! But because we fail to make it, you could say that we are destroying the mountains, rivers and forests of our planet. Chögyam Trungpa spoke to us about the drala's longing to meet us. At a program in 1980, he had introduced a meditation practice (or sadhana) and had come, unbeknownst to us, to observe the practice from the back of the room. He was disappointed in what he saw and couple of days late spoke to us in a talk.
I was hoping... that the drala principle would descend on you and become part of you. So far as I have seen here – maybe I have been coming at the wrong time of the day, but I have watched the things happening here – the sadhana was poorly attended, and it was very stiff, like what we have now. There was no humor. Usually, when you and I get together, we have some kind of fun. That is true of each of you. We always do. So that is the message: why don’t you use that kind of fun to improvise something else? I feel somewhat frustrated, myself... I feel that I could give you, impart to you, introduce to you, such wonderful ladies and gentlemen of the drala principle. They are longing to meet you. At this point I’m afraid I have to be very bold: they’re longing to meet you! So why on earth do you have to create a barrier to exclude the dralas from your life? For heaven’s sake, heaven and earth, can’t we just relax a little bit. And please, shed a few tears. That will help a lot.
Chögyam Trungpa made clear that meeting the dralas requires our participation, and really our hunger for them. We must cross a certain threshold which is composed of hundreds of years denial of this kind of thinking, which has become forbidden to us, as in a witch burning that later became scientific dogma. This threshold of rationality, though created over centuries is itself so thin as to be essentially not even there, but, composed as it is of habit we take it seriously, as did our parents, and those before them. We can't slog through it horizontally, but we can escape it so easily in vertical fashion, by capsizing up.
Meeting the dralas has nothing to do with fantasy (nor is fantasy imagination), which in fact would be the farthest thing from meeting them, since fantasy is a kind of idle cultivation of thought, like a sexual fantasy, whereas the experience of the dralas is a felt sense of them - including the felt sense of imagination - something we begin to notice and become fluent in. A fantasy would do the hunter no good at all and hunting is as an aspect of meeting the dralas, having that kind of attunement to each moment as well as a familiarity with the landscape, a way of studying it again and again.
Another way to consider how meeting the dralas in not a fantasy or approached through fantasy is to consider the radical difference between having a sexual fantasy and falling in love.
The hunger we have for the dralas is the hunger of falling in love which is the hunger from our primordial homeland which is the hunger for our teacher. We may not meet our teacher for a long time. We may have a single day or perhaps only a single hour with him or her (I know someone who met Chögyam Trungpa once, the day before he died; that one hour became equivalent to a decade or more that others had!). We may never meet our teacher and it is possible we already have. The teacher awakens us to our self, whenever that process occurs we are meeting our teacher. So who is our teacher? And must she or he be "alive"?
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Reset brings us to the postures we are already in. From the age of one or two until the declines of illness and inevitable old age, we are either sitting, standing, walking or lying down. Of course we are usually doing so many things, either mentally or physically or both, that we seldom think in such terms, but it is precisely through consciously inhabiting the simplicity of each of these four postures that vertical time can be recognized and the dralas invoked. Eduardo Galliano wrote a poem that clarifies the confusion we have about our body, as well as it's invitation.
The church says the body is a sin.
Science says the body is a machine.
Advertising says the body is a market.
The body says, I am a fiesta.
The dralas say, "We are your body, the world is your body, the cosmos is your body."
The drala principle is connected to our ancestory. The totality of our human cultures, technologies and language is founded on the transmission of knowledge and insight passed from one person to another or to a group. Lineage is a particular stream, passed from generation to generation. Ancestors are those who preceded us. Family is our most fundamental lineage, though spiritual or artistic transmission might cut even deeper into soul than family. Some feel little connection to their genetic lineage, even to their parents; their ancestors are elsewhere (or in part elsewhere), just as being born Christian does not mean one will be a Christian, will want to be. For those who seek gender change, being born male or female does not mean they are. Lineage and ancestor, like primordial homeland, is also a longing, often intangible; a mystery we contact in own heart, a calling that haunts us when we ignore it.
Our "inner" lineage is a mixture of the various lineages we have been born into, learned about, identified with or become part of. It is on the "inside" - in our thought-stream, feelings, emotions and beliefs; but even deeper, in our heart. It is a dynamic and inherently confusing mix, which is the very nature of inner. Our outer lineages - where our father was born, that we were baptized or became Buddhist, that we served in Iraq - are seemingly concrete and easily described to others. Inner is more how we really feel, what we actually long for, what we don't even consciously know yet.
Inner is also "secret" because it is not necessarily seen from the outside; many things only we know, just as many things about ourselves are not yet known to us. A stranger will not know our name until we disclose it, and so secret lineage is also a kind of power we have; not just the power to disclose, but a power we can draw on immediately, because it is in us already.
To become conscious of one's inner lineage, which is invariably a collections of lineages, is to become conscious of one's "cutting edge." At this edge one discerns what most matters, what feels most genuine and applicable to life now; its not just what we "should" believe and follow, but what we have true faith in. True faith is not dogma, but what arises in our heart, what feels to be our calling. The more intently we follow our path, the more our calling has its way with us, leading us to shed, mutate, and surrender, to cross bridges we didn't think we would have to.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. My senior-year high school art class had a good collection of monographs, including a book on Byzantine art. The mosaics of the Eastern Orthodox church were extremely moving to me; they conveyed the energy of early Christianity, the Christianity I wanted to have, or that I once had, the one I felt to be true. A Christianity not of politics and dogmas but of inquiry; a religion of somber beauty, grottoes and caves lit by a candle where contemplatives gathered alone or in a group, but always silently. I had taken my LSD trips but had not yet encountered Buddhism; I was a Jonah not yet swallowed by the whale. I knew my future was not one of being a Christian, yet beauty in some ways trumps all.
The Byzantine art monograph I studied when I was seventeen had several photographs of Hagia Sophia and I’ve never forgotten them and Constantinople-Istanbul became a longed-for destination inside me. Just over thirty-years later something made me include Istanbul in my travel plans, the year I turned fifty. Hagia Sophia is a conqueror’s palace, stark and even brutal evidence of what the Roman Empire could accomplish; Constantine’s vendetta if looked at from a slave’s point of view. In spite of this, in spite of the cameras, the crowds and the overwhelming imperial vastness of a building that remained the world’s largest for five-hundred years, Hagia Sophia also carries in its varied and triumphant beauty the improbable atmosphere of the fire-lit cave; the somber, reflective and deeply innocence-seeking gaze of Christianity’s founder, the Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.
In 2000, I took a trip to Spain and spent several days in Cordoba. I mostly wandered around, visiting the well known places in the old city, as well as the sides streets and modern avenues. Just outside of the city gates and across the Guadalquivir river, I came across a museum dedicated to Ibn Arabi and went in. About all I remember of the museum is the large wax statue of Ibn Arabi, cast heroically as Jesus might be, and that I had encountered a major figure of world history and spirituality of whom I knew nothing.
I became enthralled by the Moorish history of Cordoba and the echoes of that time that could still be found; the visual ones of the architecture, and a spiritual echo that represented the enlightenment of the Sufis of Ibn Arabi's era - perhaps a time as thick with realized masters as Tibet or Japan were during their eras of great spiritual attainment (Karma Pakshi and Dōgen Zenji were contemporaries of Ibn Arabi, as was St. Francis of Assisi).
Nine years later I rediscovered Ibn 'Arabi though on a less extensive trip that simply required walking from my house to the storage shed along side it and retrieving a book with some of his quotes. A moment had occurred in my morning meditation, something from Cordoba spilling into a 2009 March day with snow on the ground. I became activated with a sense of new discovery and imperative, the energy of the dralas, and this continued for weeks. During this time, I remembered the book in my shed, a compilation of various Sufi teachings on love, and once I'd retrieved it, and then purchased four others, I began to read Ibn 'Arabi regularly, which was to have his thought and metaphors enter my bloodstream, and so thick with beauty and unexpected meaning I could feel my cells change.
I realized almost immediately that I was being redirected or sent back into school. That moment of meditation was unequivocal; Lord Mukpo's dream time had suddenly incorporated my forgotten trip to Moorish Spain into it's geography and in an almost diabolical twist, I was shot into the language of God. The non-theistic terrain of Buddhism no longer had "theism" opposing it, which enhanced my confusion but also and my faith. Since then I've periodically inhabited an isthmus eaten away from two sides, the language of Buddhism and the language of mystical Islam, with the waters around being one, so to speak, those of Shambhala, or an ocean without shore.
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As far as I can see, there is no difference between theism and non-theism, basically speaking. Declaring an involvement with any kind of “ism” turns out to be a matter of self and other. In fact, the whole question of self and other can then become very important. But if you really pursue any spiritual path, you will discover, surprisingly, that self and other are one thing. Self is other, other is self... Whether you worship someone else or worship yourself, it is the same thing. - Chögyam Trungpa, Speaking of Silence
Unconditional faith is not something to believe in but something to know. It is not forcing myself to believe but encountering something believable, something undeniable, something innate. The encounter itself is intangible, a substance I cannot collect, bring home, or experiment on. I cannot prove its existence or even that it happened. Faith is packaged intangibility as terrain, an invisible homeland we emerged from, or once crossed over, or slept on for a night - that continues to exist as a spiritual echo or postcard.
The text says, “That mind of sadness, possessing faith, free from thought is the profound tradition of the genuine great warriors.” Faith is an innate aspect of the mind of sadness - which is unconditional sadness: the all-embracing mercy, love and compassion that is an ocean without shore, distributed evenly and without beginning or end throughout the timeless and unbounded cosmos. It discovers us as gravity, intangible attraction. The mind of sadness possesses faith as the universe is possessed by gravity.
The mind free from thought is like the moon without space probes or discarded fuel tanks. A perfect sphere of non-interference that has no diameter. The thought that goes looking for something it can never find is freed by outer space and faith flares in countless unique constellations. The profound tradition of genuine great warriors are those who open to witness this immensity without location.
These warriors have journeyed though countless light years of aloneness. Since awake travels at the speed of light they became ever closer to themselves. On an endless journey, they have nothing to dispense but gravity itself; compassion or mercy in all its faces - terrible fires or the miracle of water. The most perfect geniuses of awakened warriorship travel faster than the speed of light, which explains how they might arise between the thought we just had and the one we haven’t had yet. The gap in thought is our invisible homeland and our faith the felt evidence of each of their visits.
Contents of this Page
Personal Accounts of drala
The Good Something, by Patricia Friedson.
A New Chair, by Bonnie McCandless Every.
Magic Cat, by Lisa Thompson
Connection with the Invisible. An interview with Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche on the drala principle.
Bill Scheffel: I feel Chögyam Trungpa gave us these teachings (of the drala principle) at the end of his life, when he had little time to teach extensively, and it is up to us to connect the dots. But if I could ask you this question: two major pitfalls of the student or practitioner are eternalism and nihilism. I think there is, if not a consensus, a widely held view that in the west there is a lot of experience of nihilism. There is a kind of diminished sense of this kind of co-participatory relationship with the world at large and the three-kayas.
Traleg Rinpoche: I think so. I agree with you there completely and wholeheartedly. And it is a big problem and I think what has happened there is that people have embraced the western secular view of the world so totally that they have incorporated only certain aspects of Buddhism into their lives, and the other aspects of Buddhism that do not fit with that world view they have sort of ignored that completely, at their own peril. People can relate to Buddhist philosophy of shamatha and vipashyana and emptiness and even bodhichitta, I suppose, but anything to do with the other side of Buddhism, which even people like Nagarjuna and Shantideva were very strong on – deities, and trying to make some connection with invisible beings - If we don‘t see them then they don’t exist and if we live in the modern world they are not real. (Read entire interview.)