Tibetan practices: Alexandra David-Neel

(The following is an excerpt from Chapter VII, “Mystic Theories and Spiritual Training,” of Magic and Mystery in Tibet, by Alexandra David-Neel.)

The trilogy: Examination, Meditation, Understanding, takes a peculiar importance among the followers of the “Short Path” and the intellectual activity of the disciple is exclusively directed towards these results. Sometimes the means that are used seem extravagant, yet when closely investigated one sees that the object aimed at is quite reasonable. It is also clear that inventors of these curious methods perfectly understand the mind of their brethren in religion and have devised them accordingly.

Padmasambhava (see footnote) is said to have described the stages of the mystic path in the following way:

  1. To read a large number of books on the various religions and philosophies. To listen to many learned doctors professing different doctrines. To experiment oneself with a number of methods.
  2. To choose a doctrine among the many one has studied and discard the other ones, as the eagle carries off only one sheep from the flock.
  3. To remain in a lowly condition, humble in one’s demeanour, not seeking to be conspicuous or important in the eyes of the world, but behind apparent insignificance, to let one’s mind soar high above all worldly power and glory.
  4. To be indifferent to all. Behaving like the dog or the pig that eat what chance brings them. Not making any choice among the things which one meets. Abstaining from any effort to acquire or avoid anything. Accepting with equal indifference whatever comes: riches or poverty, praise or contempt; giving up discrimination between virtue and vice, honourable and shameful, good and evil. Feeling neither grief nor shame for whatever one may have done, feeling neither elation nor pride on account of what one has accomplished.
  5. To consider with perfect equanimity and detachment the conflicting opinions and the various manifestations of the activity of beings. To understand that such is the nature of things, the inevitable mode of action of each entity and to remain always serene. To look at the world as a man standing on the highest mountain of the country looks at the valleys and the lesser summits spread out below him.
  6. It is said that the sixth stage cannot be described in words. It corresponds to the realization of the “Void,” which in Lamaist terminology means the Inexpressible Reality.

(footnote) Padmasambhava was an 8th-century member of the heterodox sect of tantric Buddhism who brought the sect to Tibet.

(p. 165)

In spite of these programmes, it is impossible to establish a regular gradation of the multifarious training exercises devised by Tibetan mystic anchorites. In practice, these various exercises are combined. Moreover each lama adopts a peculiar method, and it is even rare to see two disciples of the same master following exactly the same path.

We must make up our minds to accept an apparent chaos, which is a natural result of the different individual tendencies and aptitudes which the gurus, adepts of the “Short Path,” refuse to crush. “Liberty” is the motto on the heights of the “Land of Snows,” but strangely enough, the disciple starts on that road of utter freedom by the strictest obedience to his spiritual guide. However, the required submission is confined to the spiritual and psychic exercises and the way of living prescribed by the master. No dogmas are ever imposed. The disciple may believe, deny or doubt anything according to his own feelings.

I have heard a lama say that the part of a master, adept of the “Short Path,” is to superintend a “clearing.” He must incite the novice to rid himself of the beliefs, ideas, acquired habits and innate tendencies that make up his present mind, habits of thought which have developed over the course of successive lives whose origin is lost in the night of time. On the other hand, the master must warn his disciple to be on his guard against accepting new beliefs, ideas and habits as groundless and irrational as those that he shakes off.

The discipline on the “Short Path” is to avoid imagining things. When imagination is prescribed in contemplative meditation it is to demonstrate, by the conscious creation of perceptions or sensations, the illusory nature of those same perceptions and sensations which we accept as real though they, too, rest on imagination, the only difference being that in their case the creation is unconsciously effected.

The Tibetan reformer, Tsong Khapa, defines meditation as “the means of enabling oneself to reject all imaginative thoughts together with their seed.” It is this uprooting of “imaginative thoughts” and the burning of their “seed” which constitutes the “clearing” which I have just mentioned.

Two exercises are especially prescribed by the adepts of the mystic path. The first consists in observing with great attention the workings of the mind without attempting to stop it. (p. 166) Seated in a quiet place, the disciple refrains as much as he can from consciously pointing his thoughts in a definite direction. He marks the spontaneous arising of ideas, memories, desires, etc., and considers how, superseded by new ones, they sink into the dark recesses of the mind.

He watches also the subjective image, which, apparently unconnected with any thoughts or sensations, appears while his eyes are closed: men, animals, landscapes, moving crowds, etc. During that exercise, he avoids making reflections about the spectacle that he beholds, looking passively at the continual, swift, flowing stream of thoughts and mental images that whirl, jostle, fight and pass away.

It is said that the disciple is about to gather the fruit of this practice when he loosens the firm footing he had kept till then in his quality of spectator. He too—so he must understand—is an actor on the tumultuous stage. His present introspection, all his acts and thoughts, and the very sum of them all which he calls his self, are but ephemeral bubbles in a whirlpool made of an infinite quantity of bubbles, which congregate for a moment, separate, burst, and form again, following a giddy rhythm.

The second exercise is intended to stop the roaming of the mind in order that one may concentrate it on one single object. Training which tends to develop a perfect concentration of mind is generally deemed necessary for all students without distinction. As to observing the mind’s activity, that is only recommended to the most intellectual disciples.

Training the mind to “one-pointedness” is practiced in all Buddhist sects. In Southern Buddhist countries—Ceylon, Siam, Burma—devices called kasinas are used. These may be clay discs variously coloured, a round surface covered by water, or a fire at which one gazes through a screen in which a round hole is pierced. Any of these circles is stared at until it is seen as clearly when the eyes are shut as when they are open looking at it. The process does not aim at producing an hypnotic state, as some Western scholars have said, but it accustoms one to concentrating the mind. When the subjective image has become as vivid as the objective, this indicates—according to those who use that method—that “one-pointedness” has been reached. Tibetans consider the object chosen to train oneself to be of no importance. Whatever most easily attracts and retains the disciple’s attention should be preferred.

There is a story well known in the Tibetan religious world that illustrates a successful result of this practice. A young man begs the spiritual guidance of a mystic anchorite. The latter wishes him to begin by exercising himself in the concentration of mind. “What kind of work do you usually do?” he inquires of his new disciple. “I keep the yaks on the hills,” answered the man. (p. 167) All right,” says the gomchen. “Meditate on a yak.” The novice repairs to a cave roughly fitted up to serve as a habitation—a few such shelters can always be found in the regions inhabited by herdsmen—and settles down there. After some time, the master goes to the place and calls to his pupil to come out of the cave. The latter hears the gomchen’s voice, gets up and trys to walk out through the entrance of his primitive dwelling, but his meditation has achieved its purpose. The young man answers his guru: “I cannot get out, my horns prevent me.”

One variety of exercises in concentration consists in choosing some kind of a landscape, a garden for instance, as a subject of meditation. First, the student examines the garden, observing every detail. The flowers, their different species, the way in which they are grouped, the trees, their respective height, the shape of their branches, their different leaves and so on, noting all particulars that he can detect.

When he has formed a subjective image of the garden, that is to say when he sees it as distinctly when shutting his eyes as when looking at it, the disciple begins to eliminate one by one the various details, which together constitute the garden. Gradually, the flowers lose their colours and their forms, they crumble into tiny pieces which fall to dust and finally vanish. The trees, also, lose their leaves, the branches shorten, and seem to be withdrawn into the trunk. The latter grows thin, becomes a mere line, more and more flimsy till it ceases to be visible. Now, the bare ground alone remains and from it the novice must subtract the stones and the earth. The ground in its turn vanishes. (. . .) It is said that by the means of such exercises one succeeds in expelling from the mind all idea of form and matter and thus gradually reaches the various states of consciousness such as that of the “pure, boundless space” and that of the “boundless consciousness.” Finally one attains to the “realm of void,” and then to the realm where “neither consciousness nor unconsciousness” is present.

These four contemplative meditations are often mentioned in early Buddhist Scriptures and are recognized by all sects as part of the spiritual training: they are called “formless contemplations.” Many methods have been devised which lead to these peculiar states of mind. Sometimes the later states are produced by a contemplation absolutely devoid of cogitations, while in other cases they follow a series of minute introspections or are the result of prolonged investigations and reflections regarding the external world. Lastly, it is said that there are people who suddenly reach one or another of these four states of mind without any preparation in any place or during any kind of practice.

The following exercise has already been briefly described in the story of the man who felt himself to be a yak. (. . .) For instance, the disciple has chosen a tree as an object of meditation, and has identified himself with it; that is to say that he has lost the consciousness of his own personality and experiences the peculiar sensations that one may ascribe to a tree. He feels himself to be a stiff trunk with branches; he perceives the sensation of the wind moving the leaves. He notes the activity of the roots feeding him underground, (p. 168) the rising of the sap which spreads all over the tree, and so on. Then, having mentally become a tree, which has now become the subject, he must look at the man seated in front of him, who has now become the object, and must examine this man in detail. This done, the disciple again places his consciousness in the man and contemplates the tree as before. Then, transferring his consciousness once more into the tree, he contemplates the man. This alternating transposition of subject and object is done a number of times. This exercise is often practiced indoors with a stick called gom shing, or meditation wood.

Preparation for meditation is called niampar jagpa. The term niampar jagpa means “to make equal,” “to level”—meaning to calm all causes of agitation that roll their “waves” through the mind. It consists in bringing the mind into perfect stillness, an impression of deliverance and serenity. When sitting down for their appointed time of meditation, people who habitually practice methodical contemplation often experience the sensation of putting down a load or taking off a heavy garment and entering a silent, delightfully calm region.

A burning incense stick may be used in a completely darkened room to dispose the mind to meditation; but I must again lay stress upon the fact that it is not intended to produce an hypnotic state. Rather, the contemplation of the tiny dot of fire at the top of the stick is to produce a state of calm.

Another exercise, which seems to be seldom practiced, consists in “displacing one’s consciousness in one’s own body.” It is explained as follows:

We feel our consciousness in our “heart.” Our arms seem to us to be “annexes” to our body, and our feet seem to be a distant part of our person. In fact, arms feet and other parts of the body are looked at as if they were objects that belonged to someone dwelling elsewhere. Now the student will endeavour to make the “consciousness” leave its habitual abode and transfer it, for instance, to his hand. Then he must feel himself to have the shape of five fingers and a palm, situated at the extremity of a long attachment, which joins on to a big moving structure, the body. That is to say, he must experience the sensation that we might have if, instead of having the eyes and the brain in the head, we had them in the hand, and the hand was able to examine the head and the body, reversing the normal process, which is to look downwards in order to see the hands or the body.

What can be the aim of such strange exercises? (p. 169) Some lamas have told me that the aim of these practices can hardly be explained, because those who have not felt their effects could not understand the explanations. One attains, by the means of these strange drills, psychic states entirely different from those habitual to us. They cause us to pass beyond the fictitious limits which we assign to the self, the result being that we grow to realize that the self is compound, impermanent, and that the self, as self, does not exist.

One of these lamas seized upon a remark I had made as an argument in support of his theory. When he spoke of the heart as the seat of thought and mind, I had said that Westerners would rather place thoughts and mind in the brain. “You see,” immediately replied my interlocutor, “that one may feel and recognize the mind in different places. Since these foreigners experience the sensation of thinking in their head, and I experience it in my heart, one may believe that it is quite possible to feel it in the foot. But all these are only deceitful sensations, with no shadow of reality. The mind is neither in the heart nor in the head, nor somewhere outside of the body, apart, separated, alien to it. It is to help one realize this fact that these apparently strange practices have been devised.”

Here again we meet with the “clearing” process. All these exercises aim at destroying habitual notions accepted by routine and without personal investigation. The object is to make one understand that other ideas can be put in their place. It is hoped that the disciple will conclude that there cannot be any absolute truth in ideas derived from sensations that can be discarded while others, even those contradictory to them, take their place.

Kindred theories are professed by the followers of the Chinese Ch’an sect. They express them in enigmatic sentences such as: “Lo, a cloud of dust is rising from the ocean and the roaring of the waves is heard over the land.” “I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding.” “When I pass over the bridge, Lo! the water floweth not, but the bridge floweth.” “Empty handed I go, and behold! the spade’s handle is in my hand.” And so on.

The doctrine of the Ch’an sect has been defined by one of its followers as “the art of perceiving the North star in the Southern hemisphere.” This paradoxical saying resembles that of the lama who said to me: “One must discover the white in the black and the black in the white.” I shall cite a question, current in Tibet, which masters put to their pupils. “A flag moves. What is that which moves—is it the flag or the wind?” The answer is that neither the flag nor the wind moves—it is the mind that moves. (p. 170)


David-Neel, Alexandra (1937). Magic and Mystery in Tibet. London, Penguin Books. https://www.theosophy.world/sites/default/files/ebooks/magic-and-mystery-in-tibet1931.pdf   (download)

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