The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep

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In the Tibetan tradition, the ability to dream lucidly is not an end in itself rather it provides an additional context in which one can engage in advanced and effective practices to achieve liberation. Dream yoga is followed by sleep yoga also known as the yoga of clear light. It is a more advanced practice similar to most secret Tibetan practices. The goal is to remain aware during deep sleep when the gross conceptual mind and the operation of the senses cease. The result of these practices is greater happiness and freedom in both our waking and dreaming states.

"If we cannot carry our practice into sleep," Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche writes, "If we lose ourselves every night, what chance do we have to be aware when death comes? Look to your experience in dreams to know how you will fare in death. Look to your experience of sleep to discover whether or not you are truly awake."

This book gives detailed instructions for dream yoga, including foundational practices done during the day. In the Tibetan tradition, the ability to dream lucidly is not an end in itself, rather it provides an additional context in which one can engage in advanced and effective practices to achieve ie liberation.

Dream yoga is followed by sleep yoga, also known as the yoga of clear light. It is a more advanced practice, similar to the most secret Tibetan practices. The goal is to remain aware during deep sleep when the gross conceptual mind and the operation of the senses cease. Most of us do not even consider this depth of awareness a possibility, yet it is well-known in Tibetan Buddhist and Ban spiritual traditions.

The result of these practices is greater happiness and freedom in both our waking and dreaming states. The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Steep imparts powerful methods for progressing along the path to liberation.


About the Author

TENZIN WANGYAL RINPOCHE, a lama in the Bon tradition of Tibet, presently resides in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the founder and director of The Ligmincha Institute, an organization dedicated to the study and practice of the teachings of the Bon tradition. He was born in Amritsar, India, after his parents fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and received training from both Buddhist and Ban teachers, attaining the degree of Geshe, the highest academic degree of traditional Tibetan culture. He has been in the United States since 1091 and has taught widely in Europe and America.



A well-known saying in Tibet states, "One should explain the lineage and the history in order to cut doubt about the authenticity of the teaching and the transmission." Therefore, I begin this book with a short story of my life.

I was born shortly after my parents fled the Chinese oppression in Tibet. Conditions were difficult and my parents placed me in a Christian boarding school, where they hoped I would be cared for. My father was a Buddhist lama*, and my mother was a practitioner of Bon*. Sometime after, my father died. Eventually, my mother remarried a man who was a Bon lama. Both he and my mother desired that I live within my culture, and when I was ten years old I was taken to the main Bon monastery in Dolanji, India, and ordained as a monk.

After living in the monastery for some time, I was recognized by Lopon (Head Teacher) Sangye Tenzin Rinpoche as the reincarnation of Khyungtul Rinpoche, a famous scholar, teacher, author, and meditation master. He was well known as a master astrologer, and in western Tibet and northern India was famous as a tamer of wild spirits. He was widely sought after as a healer with magical abilities. One of his sponsors was a local king of Himachal in Northern India. This king and his wife, unable to bear children, asked Khyungtul Rinpoche to heal them, which he did. The son that they bore and raised is the present-day Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Virbhardur.

When I was thirteen, my kind root master, Lopon Sangye Tenzin, a man of great knowledge and realization, prepared to teach one of the most important and esoteric teachings in the Bon religion: the Great Perfection (Dzogchen*) lineage of the Oral Transmission of Zhang Zhung (Zhang Zhung Nyan Gyud*). Even though I was still young, my step-father visited Lopon Rinpoche and asked that I be admitted to the teachings, which would take place every day for three years. Lopon kindly agreed, but asked that I, along with the other prospective students, bring him a dream from the night before the teachings were to begin, so that he might determine our readiness. Some of the students remembered no dream, which was considered a sign of obstacles. Lopon had them begin appropriate purification practices and delayed the beginning of the teaching until each student did have a dream. Dreams of other students were taken as indications that they needed to do particular practices to ready themselves for the teachings-for example, doing practices that strengthened their connections to the Bon guardians*. I dreamt about a bus circumambulating my teacher's house, although there is actually no road there. In the dream, the bus conductor was my friend and I stood beside him, handing out tickets to each person that boarded the bus.

The tickets were pieces of paper that had the Tibetan syllable A written on them. That was in the second or third year o my education at Dolanji, when I was thirteen years old, and at the time I did not know that A was a symbol of major significance in Dzogchen teachings. My teacher never said anything about the dream, which was his way. He made little comments about what was good, but I was happy as long as I was allowed to come to the teachings. It is common, in Tibetan spiritual traditions, for the dreams of the students to be used by the teacher in this fashion to determine if it is appropriate for a student to receive a particular teaching. Though it would be some time before I began to study and practice dream yoga, this incident was the beginning of my interest in dreams.

It strongly impressed me how greatly dreaming is valued in Tibetan culture and in the Bon religion, and how information from the unconscious is often of greater value than the information the conscious mind can provide. After the three-year teaching, which included numerous meditation retreats with my fellow practitioners as well as many retreats that I did alone, I entered the monastic Dialectic School. The program of study normally takes nine to thirteen years to complete and covers the traditional training. We were taught common academic subjects, such as grammar, Sanskrit, poetry, astrology, and art, and also learned uncommon subjects: epistemology, cosmology, sutra*, tantra* and Dzogchen. During the monastic training, I was exposed to a number of teachings and transmissions on dreams, the most important being based on the texts of the Zhang Zhung Nyan Gyud, the Mother Tantra, and of Shardza Rinpoche. I did well in the training and when I was nineteen I was asked to begin teaching others, which I did. Around the same time, I wrote and published a summary of the biography of Lord Shenrab Miwoche*, the founder of the Bon religion. Later I became the president of the Dialectic School and held that position for four years, and was very involved in shaping and developing the school. In 1986, I received the Geshe degree, the highest degree awarded in Tibetan monastic education. In 1989, at the invitation of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche's Dzogchen Community in Italy, I travelled to the West. Although I had no plans to teach, I was invited to do so by members of the community. One day I was passing out small pieces of paper to be used in a meditation on concentration. Each piece of paper had the Tibetan syllable A written on it. Right then the dream from fifteen years before, in which I passed out the same paper to people getting on the bus, came back to me.

It was as if it hit me on the head. I remained in the West and in 1991 was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship to do research at Rice University. In 1993, I published my first book in the West, The Wonders of the Natural Mind, in which I tried to present the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) teachings in a clear and simple way. In 1994 I was given a grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities to pursue research on the logical and philosophical aspects of the Bon tradition, in collaboration with Professor Anne Klein, Chair of Religious Studies, at Rice University. So my scholarly side has continued to manifest, but practice is always more important, and during all this time I have been interested in dream and dream practice.

My interest is not only theoretical. I have trusted the wisdom of my dreams, influenced from an early age by the dream experiences of my teachers and my mother and by the use of dreams in the Bon tradition, and I have been practising dream yoga intensively during the last ten years. Every night when I get into bed, I feel freedom. The busyness of the day is over. Some nights the practice is successful and some nights it is not, and that is to be expected until the practice is very advanced. Nevertheless, I go to sleep nearly every night with the intention to accomplish dream practice. It is from my own experience with the practice, as well as from the three texts that I quote above, that the teachings in this book come.



We spend a third of our life sleeping. No matter what we do, however virtuous or non-virtuous our activities, whether we are murderers or saints, monks or libertines, every day ends the same. We shut our eyes and dissolve into darkness. We do so fearlessly, even as everything we know as "me" disappears. After a brief period, images arise and our sense of self arises with them. We exist again in the apparently limitless world of dreams. Every night we participate in these most profound mysteries, moving from one dimension of experience to another, losing our sense of self and finding it again, and yet we take it all for granted. We wake in the morning and continue in "real" life, but in a sense, we are still asleep and dreaming. The teachings tell us that we can continue in this deluded, dreamy state, day and night, or wake up to the truth.

When we engage in sleep and dream yogas we become part of a long lineage. Men and women have-for centuries-done these same practices confronted the same doubts and obstacles that we do and received the same benefits that we can. Many high lamas and accomplished yogis have made sleep and dream yogas primary practices, and through them have attained realization. Reflecting on this history and remembering the people who have dedicated their lives to the teachings-our spiritual ancestors who through these teachings pass to us the fruits of their practice-will generate faith in and gratitude for the tradition.

Some Tibetan masters might find it strange that I teach these practices to Westerners who have not done certain preliminary practices or who do not have certain understandings. The teachings were traditionally maintained as secret teachings, both as a sign of respect and as a protection against dilution through the misunderstanding of unprepared practitioners. They were never taught publicly nor given lightly but were reserved for individuals who had prepared to receive them. The practices are no less efficacious and valuable than they ever were, but conditions in the world have changed, so I am trying something different. I hope that by teaching what is effective, open and simple, the tradition will be better preserved and more people will be able to benefit from it.

But it is important to respect the teachings, both to protect them and to further our own practice. Please try to receive the direct transmission of these teachings from an authentic teacher. It is good to read about these yogas but better to receive oral transmission, which creates a stronger connection with the lineage. Also, it is easy to encounter obstacles on the path that are hard to overcome on our own but which an experienced teacher can identify and help to remove. This is an important point that should not be forgotten. Our human lives are precious. We have intact bodies and minds, with complete potential. We may have met teachers and received teach-)11s,4tld we have lives in which we enjoy the freedom to follow the spiritual path. We know that practice is essential to the spiritual journey as well as to our aspiration to help others. We also know life passes quickly and death is certain, yet in our busy lives, we find it difficult to practice as much as we wish we could. Perhaps we meditate for an hour or two each day, but that leaves the other twenty-two hours in which to be distracted and tossed about on the waves of samsara*.

But there is always time for sleep; the third of our lives we spend sleeping can be used for practice. The main theme of this book is that through practice we can cultivate greater awareness during every moment of life. If we do, freedom and flexibility continually increase and we are less governed by habitual preoccupations and distractions. We develop a stable and vivid presence that allows us to more skillfully choose positive responses to whatever arises, responses that best benefit others and our own spiritual journey. Eventually, we develop a continuity of awareness that allows us to maintain full awareness during dreams as well as in waking life. Then we are able to respond to dream phenomena in creative and positive ways and can accomplish various practices in the dream state.

When we fully develop this capacity, we will find that we are living both waking and dreaming a life with greater ease, comfort, clarity, and appreciation, and we will also be preparing ourselves to attain liberation in the intermediate state (bardo*) after death. The teachings provide us with many methods to improve the quality of ordinary life. That is good, for this life is important and worthwhile. But always the ultimate use of these yogas is to lead us to liberation. To that end, this book is best understood as a practice manual, a guide to the yogas of the Bon-Buddhist traditions of Tibet that use dreams to attain liberation from the dreaminess of ordinary life and use sleep to wake from ignorance. To use the book this way, you should make a connection with a qualified teacher. Then, to stabilize the mind, do the practices of calm abiding (zhine*) found in Part Three. When you feel ready, begin the preliminary practices and spend some time with them, integrating them into your life. Then begin the primary practices. There is no hurry. We have wandered in the illusions of samsara time without beginning. To simply read another book about spirituality and then forget it will change little in life. But if we follow these practices to their end, we will wake to our primordial nature, which is enlightenment itself. If we cannot remain present during sleep, if we lose ourselves every night, what chance do we have to be aware when death comes? If we enter our dreams and interact with the mind's images as if they are real, we should not expect to be free in the state after death. Look to your experience and dreams to know how you will fare in death. Look to your experience of sleep to discover whether or not you are truly awake.


The best approach to receiving oral and written spiritual teachings is to "hear, conclude, and experience," that is, intellectually understand what is said, conclude what is meant, and apply it in practice. If learning is approached this way, the process of learning is continuous and unceasing, but if it stops at the level of the intellect, it can become a barrier to practice.

As to hearing or receiving the teachings, the good student is like a glue-covered wall: weeds thrown against it stick to it. A bad student is like drywall: what is tossed against it slides to the floor. When the teachings are received, they should not be lost or wasted. The student should retain the teachings in his or her mind, and work with them. Teachings not penetrated with understanding are like weeds thrown against the drywall; they fall to the floor and are forgotten. Coming to the conclusion of the meaning of teachings is like turning on a light in a dark room: what was hidden becomes clear. It is the experience of "a-ha!" when the pieces click into place and are understood.

It's different from simple conceptual understanding in that it is something we know rather than something we have merely heard. For example, being told about yellow and red cushions in a room is like gaining an intellectual understanding of them, but if we go into the room when it is dark, we cannot tell which cushion is which. Concluding the meaning is like turning the light on: then we directly know the red and the yellow. The teaching is no longer something we can only repeat, it is part of us. By "applying in practice," we mean turning what has been conceptual understood-what has been received, pondered and made meaningful into direct experience. This process is analogous to tasting salt. Salt can be talked about, its chemical nature understood, and so on, but the direct experience is had when it is tasted. That experience cannot be grasped intellectually and cannot-be-conveyed in words. If we try to explain it to someone who has never tasted salt, they will not be able to understand what it is that we have experienced. But when we talk of it to someone who already has had the experience, then we both know what is being referred to. It is the same with the teachings. This is how to study them: hear or read them, think about them, conclude the meaning, and find the meaning in direct experience.

In Tibet, new leather skins are put in the sun and rubbed with butter to make them softer. The practitioner is like the new skin, tough and hard with narrow views and conceptual rigidity. The teaching (dharma*) is like the butter, rubbed in through practice, and the sun is like direct experience; when both are applied the practitioner becomes soft and pliable. But butter is also stored in leather bags. When butter is left in a bag for some years, the leather of the bag becomes hard as wood and no amount of new butter can soften it. Someone who spends many years studying the teachings, intellectualizing a great deal with little experience of practice, is like that hardened leather.

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