An Interview with Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
on the Drala Principle

Posted 12-Dec: 2012

School children with monk, Bangkok, Thailand.

One of my long-term goals is to bring to Vertical Time yoga writing (my own and others) on the drala principle that is scholarly, practical and personal. Some pieces fit the latter categories more than the first, especially when anecdotal. "Scholarly" in my definition would be, for instance, to cite and comment on Chögyam Trungpa's original teachings on drala and relate them to applicable, complementary and specific contexts, such as the Bön tradition of Tibet, contemplative Christianity or the paintings of, say, Pierro della Francesca (whose work helped usher in the Italian Renaissance while maintaining something older or other; the stunned, cryptic sanctity on the faces of his subjects).

I believe you will find this interview I conducted with Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche in 2006 rich in the knowledge, candor and practicality he generously offered. Sadly, Traleg Rinpoche died of an apparent heat attach on July 24th of this year. He was 57. I haven't found a better way to introduce Traleg Rinpoche to readers who don't know of him than this tribute by Ken Wilber. At the end the article you will find video links and other sources of information about Traleg Rinpoche.

I began the interview establishing some context of the drala principle, including Chögyam Trungpa's compelling statement in his will that "we will be haunting you along with the dralas." I was particularly intent to discover Rinpoche's view on the catastrophe of nihilism, the "philosophic" though largely unconscious underpinning of materialism, where the physical world is seen an nothing more than resources to consume and our body as something to entertain and make comfortable. The assertion of my quesiton was that spiritual practice, in the secular, post-modern, global-capitalism-zeitgeist the first-world swims in, does not necessarily liberate us from nihilism unless we make a connection to spirit, the dralas, the realm of the invisible.

[For readers unfamiliar with Vajrayana Buddhism some of the terms Rinpoche uses may be unfamiliar, but I think the overall message of what he has to say will be clear and hopefully useful.]


Still of Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche from the film, Crazy Wisdom.

Bill Scheffel: To give you some background, Rinpoche, for where we could start, the first time Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche spoke on the drala principle was in 1978, when he had gathered a close group of students together after he had received many of the Shambhala terma. When he first spoke on drala it was quite riveting because the atmosphere he created was somewhat different. Among the main points he introduced was a definition of drala, as “wargods,” though as gods who conquer war rather than propagate it, that the drala principle was pre-Buddhist, and that he would eventually introduce to us a ceremony to invoke drala, which was lhasang. Chögyam Trungpa universalized drala, speaking of the native American traditions, of the Sioux medicine man, Black Elk. Later he spoke of how the drala principle existed in Greece, Rome, throughout Europe and all parts of the world.

To switch to a more personal level, Chogyam Trungpa wrote in his own will, that “I will be haunting you along with the dralas” – a dramatic statement and indication that he would be available to us even after his own death, should we be able to conceive of this. He once said to a group of us, “They are here and they want to talk to you.” So he was obviously speaking of some sambhogakaya phenomena that none of us at the time could really access, but the teachings were very beautiful and compelling. Within that ground, may I say just one more thing, Chögyam Trungpa said “All the relative thoughts that happen in your mind in connection with cause and effect are the agents of the dralas.” As I’m beginning to understand it, I think what he was saying is that in terms of tendril, when one has a kind of synchronization of body and mind with the world, and whenever a kind of gap occurs in one’s mind, then you are participating with a larger field, always, and that field can communicate with you - in the same way the tangible phenomenal world can communicate.

A key thing is, that over time many practitioners begin to feel bereft because they practice and they experience some level of mind training, but they don’t really experience that larger magic, which I believe Chögyam Trungpa was trying to convey to us through the drala principle. In my own practice I feel I’ve been somehow penetrated by the drala phenomena; it has become very real to me and the sense of power and encouragement in connection with my teacher Chögyam Trungpa is extremely strong through this. So I am interested in all of this, but particularly the inner level that people can begin to experience and how this might become a kind of guiding light in one’s life.

Traleg Rinpoche: As you may already know, there is not much literature to link the drala practices with Buddhist practices. I’m not saying there are not practices to link them, there are many, but there is not much theoretical information of how that works and how the drala principle can be incorporated into Buddhist practice. Magyal Pomra is one drala that is incorporated into practices, particularly in the eastern part of Tibet. And as you’ve pointed out, the origin of these practices goes all the way back in native Tibetan spirituality. Nevertheless, I think it may not necessarily be wrong to link the notion of drala principle with the notion of dharmapalas, to different kind of yidams, and so forth.

If we look at in one way it is just a matter of relating to phenomenal experiences on different levels of subtlety, and it is about how our own mind and the phenomenal world interact and the interplay between the two. And depending on that, one has different kinds of experiences. And so in other words even if we are not enlightened or anything like that, and we continue to have all kinds of delusional experiences, still, if we put ourselves in another kind of mode of being or seeing or feeling things differently, then we may experience things in the external world that expresses that. It may not be pure vision, but it is sort of real in its own context, so therefore quite powerful and productive to have these kind of experiences and interactions.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that in Buddhism we do talk about many different kinds of visions, and visions of many different kinds of beings, and this is not only about what is “out there” but also what it within ourselves and what is going on in ourselves, so there is some kind of co-relation, within and without. And so we have visions of drala and dharmapalas. And so we have in our impure state we may have impure visions but sometimes you may have an impure vision that is sort of significant. And that, I’m sure, is why they are not discounted. And then there are visions that are more pure than impure. We do say things like, you see Guru Rinpoche. They stand at a transitional point between impure vision and complete pure vision. Particularly in Kagyu and Nyingma tradition, they do speak of it that way. I don’t want to turn this into a theoretical discussion, but in terms of ultimate and relative reality, it is spoken that we have relative and ultimate tradition. This is the way I would answer your questions.

Bill Scheffel: You are quite right when you said there is very little literature. I feel Chögyam Trungpa gave us these teachings 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.

But these kind of practices have always been an important part of the path. Because until we attain enlightenment we do need a lot of things. What a lot of western people do is they want to have the enlightened view now and whatever an enlightened person does not rely on, we should not rely on. But we are not enlightened, we need devotional practices, and to establish connection with others and not simply do everything by ourselves.

That very individualistic approach does often, after many years of practice, lead to a dead-end, and one feels is has been a sham. But it has never been said that what in Buddhism would be called using the wisdom approach will work at the exclusion of the merit approach. Many westerners look down on the merit approach, they see it as the Buddhist peasant approach. But as you know, we need both. And doing drala practices is part of the merit approach. It is about lifting our lungta up and about wangtang – which is like charisma (authentic presence). Things like that.

All of those things are linked to what is called merit – our lungta and wangtang goes down. We are not really connecting with the world, we are not connecting with anything other than what is in our own head. If we compensate for that in our lives by having, say, a relationship with another person it all becomes very twisted because one is trying to overcompensate. And we can’t say there is no mystery to life, there are things we don’t know. So we at least need to have some openness.

Bill Scheffel: May I ask you, Rinpoche, if it wouldn’t be presumptuous - and especially in terms of these questions of vitality and inspiration and windhorse - how you draw as a person, as a practitioner, as a teacher, all of the things that you are, how you draw your own inspiration, your own vitality. How are some of the ways in which you personally live, can you say something that would perhaps illustrate some of these things.

Traleg Rinpoche: Yes, I think the main thing, at least from a Buddhist point of view is that trying to understand things is important, but what is also important is merit, and that means thinking about karma and so forth. Thinking about karma is a very important thing. And I’m not saying that in a sort of moralistic kind of way. Even if we see it as a sort of merit making mechanism, I think it is a very good thing. I really do believe that and I take it very seriously. I don’t really to a lot of puja, elaborate rituals and so on, but I do pray a lot, I think that is a good thing. Trying to feel some inspiration from past masters and dharmapalas and yidams, even dralas and so forth. And doing torma offerings, making food offerings to hungry ghosts, whatever. I don’t sort of do those all of the time, but it is more the mental attitude, feeling that you are making peace with everything so that there will be no sort of atmosphere of uncomfortable or so the environment is hostile or obstructed or you are ignoring it in some way. So feeling you are exuding the sense that you are very respectful. I think things like that are very important.

Bill Scheffel: That is very helpful,especially to me. We seem to come much later to prayer, but in my own case, when I started to say things in my own words, in my room or wherever, it really started to really make a difference.

Traleg Rinpoche: I definitely think so! And the good thing in Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, is we can pray in so many different ways and to so many different beings! We are lucky to have this kind of opportunity and range, depending on what you need. It is very important to take that seriously. The power is not just to the object of your prayer, but you are saying that with whatever power of merit I have left – the being you are praying toward and your own merit.

Bill Scheffel: And the offerings you cited?

Traleg Rinpoche: Yes, it doesn’t have to be elaborate, but just the fact that you do something.

Bill Scheffel: Tsoknyi Rinpoche stresses that we need to turn off the inner engine, because in the west we always have inner impulse, movement or speed going on. He once said that, "In Tibet not a lot was going on anyway, and in the winter nothing was going on, so elaborate visualization practices were appropriate." But for us it may be counterproductive to take up elaborate practices because what the mind really needs is to settle. The mahamudra and dzochen teachings can really help you settle and from that have clarity and, if you wish, visualization.

Traleg Rinpoche: Yes, I think so. And even if doing mahamudra it is very important to be doing some ritual as well.

Bill Scheffel: Rinpoche, thank you very much for your time. This has been very helpful.

. . .

Traleg Rinpoche appears numerous times in the film, Crazy Wisdom. The outtakes for his interview segments can be found on YouTube (along with other video footage).

Traleg Rinpoche on Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Crazy Wisdom, and the Mahasiddha tradition Part 1.

Traleg Rinpoche on Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Crazy Wisdom, and the Mahasiddha tradition Part 2.

Traleg Rinpoche on Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Crazy Wisdom, and the Mahasiddha tradition Part 3.



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