Interview with Lobsang Rapgay – Aesthetic Thought
by , Jan 27, 2018
Lobsang Rapgay is a professional psychologist who teaches at UCLA and a Buddhist of the Yellow Hat School. I heard him speak at a symposium in San Francisco over twenty years ago. Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral, Linda Cutts from the SF Zen center, Michael Murphy of Esalen and several others also spoke.
Lobsang talked about aesthetic thought. He said that in the West we're too fatigued to engage in aesthetic thought. He said that if aesthetic thought reached a certain quality, the numinous could be brought down into circulation in a culture. Without that, he said, a culture couldn't survive.
Even without quite knowing what he meant by "aesthetic thought" his words stayed with me. Over the years, I even quoted him. It took a long time for the idea of seeking him out to talk further ripened. It turned out it wasn't so difficult to reach him at UCLA and he graciously agreed to meet with me. In January I drove down to LA for a conversation. — Richard Whittaker
works: I’d like to ask a few general questions to begin —for instance, would you say something about the Yellow Hat School? Is that Gelukgpa?
Lobsang Ragpay: That’s right. In the Tibetan tradition there are four schools with their own distinct tenets and practices. The Gelukpa school is the dominant school in Tibet.
[ I think you’ll enjoy this tea—handing me a cup. ]
I escaped to India when I was about two years old. Those were hard, difficult years. In the 60s India was undeveloped with extreme poverty. So we struggled to survive.
works: When did the Dalai Lama come to India?
Lobsang: 1959. I’d left six months earlier in 1958. In Lhasa people knew that sooner or later things would come to a head. Many people began to leave even before March 10th, 1959. I left with my father in a caravan to India.
works: I’ve read that in those times many people didn’t make it.
Lobsang: The majority of Tibetans who escaped left after March 10 and faced tremendous odds and suffering in India. Many got seriously sick and died during the first few years.
works: When did you come to the US?
Lobsang: I came to the United States in 2000.
works: And now you’re a professional psychologist?
Lobsang: Yes. After getting licensed as a psychologist, I worked at Department of Psychiatry, UCLA, as an assistant clinical professor and director of UCLA Behavioral Medicine Clinic for six years. Later I moved over to a research track. I study fear-related disorders.
works: Would you say something about your research?
Lobsang: I’m studying the behavioral and neural correlates of fear re-consolidation using the classical fear-conditioning paradigm.
works: In Tibetan Buddhism there must be a deep understanding of one’s relationship with fear.
Lobsang: That’s right. Fear and anxiety are derived from the three poisons.
works: Could you say what those are?
Lobsang: They are attachment, hatred and ignorance of reality. For instance, ignorance of reality can cause excessive attachment and hatred, which can lead to projecting threatening meaning to things and people.
works: Now you’re teaching at UCLA, as well.
Lobsang: Yes. I teach psychotherapy—particularly mindfulness-based psychotherapy—for treating anxiety disorders.
works: You have a private practice?
works: I’m guessing you don’t do a lot of long-term psychotherapy, or am I wrong about that?
Lobsang: I do both long and short-term psychotherapy. Actually my background as a clinical psychologist is in psychoanalytical psychotherapy. I was drawn to Wilfred Bion’s work. Bion was a very famous British psychoanalyst. He was born in India and had familiarity with the Hindu tradition of direct experience, which he described as being at-onement with your present moment experience.
The therapist, according to him, must maintain a state of mind free from desire and memory, i.e. a containing, spacious state of mind. By “free from desire” he simply means that the therapist should not have an agenda in the moment—for instance, the agenda to get the patient well. Such preconceptions get in the way of having a direct experience in the immediacy of the encounter between the two.
A mind free of desire and memory is a containing and healing state because it can take in the unwanted, threatening projections of the patient and hold them without preconceptions.
When held in this manner, the contained, disorganized information can be primed by a selected fact to form a preconception that leads to thinking about the information.
What this means is that an invariant among the disparate information will draw the attention of the therapist. By being fully present with the invariant, the disparate information begins to organize itself around it to give the therapist a primitive mental representation of what is going on, which can then be presented to the patient.
works: To reach a state of mind as you describe sounds very challenging. It would take some definite training.
Lobsang: Exactly. We’re conditioned to problem-solving and constantly processing our experiences. It’s difficult to let go of what we are conditioned to do, particularly when threatening experiences of others are projected into us. We instantly react with defensiveness and try to deflect the projections. The familiar is safe and also give us a sense of control of our inner and outer worlds.
works: That’s very interesting. I would presume, that having a map—the idea of some particular structure—as a psychotherapist, I’d be trying to fit the experience into that structure. I’d sort of be caught in a mental world.
Lobsang: You’re seduced by your knowledge, and you don’t see it, right?
Lobsang: It’s essentially narcissistic. The idea of “knowing” gives one power over the other. Of course, it’s an unconscious process, a defense against not knowing. Healing begins by embracing the state of not knowing in the spaciousness of the mind so that in the darkness a flicker of light can be seen.
works: That’s beautiful. It seems to me this approach would be very difficult, first of all for a practitioner to understand, and then secondly, to develop a practice that begins to allow the material to be there.
Lobsang: That’s right
works: This is not an easy thing to do.
Lobsang: No, and this is where mindfulness training can be a tool for emptying the mind of thinking and letting internal and external stimuli unfold—rather than responding to them in the habitual way of trying to make immediate sense of them. One simply is fully present in a non-evaluative way without a need to know right away.
works: In other words, if I, as the therapist, am able to hold this material without interfering, something in me, a greater part—this greater part will…
Lobsang: Organize it.
works: Yes. This reminds me of a story. Did you ever meet Michel de Salzmann?
Lobsang: I have heard of him, yes.
works: He was a psychiatrist. There’s a story I’ve heard from Michel’s practice. For some time he was letting a schizophrenic young man live in his home in the basement.
Lobsang: Please have your tea.
works: Thank you.
Lobsang: Do you like it?
works: It’s wonderful. I love it… So one day the young man came upstairs and was standing there in a psychotic state confronting Michel. It was intense. Michel also had a very strong spiritual practice of his own and he simply stood there looking at this young man without judgment—just seeng him. Basically, he was open to this person. I think he did what you’re describing. Just in being seen, being held, something took place, a healing. The young man was able to leave after that and begin his journey back into the world.
Lobsang: Right. This state of mind has an aesthetic quality to it—aesthetic in that mental experiences are not linear, but more circular patterns that intercept with multiple other mental activities. It’s aesthetic in that it’s not bound by memory, but rather invites information to enter and form a collage—a disorganized pattern that the therapist is initially intimidated by because he or she cannot make sense of it. But by containing it in the spaciousness of the mind and directly experiencing the chaos, eventually he or she sees the beauty of it.
works: Well, bringing in the word “aesthetic” connects directly with why I’m here this morning. It was over twenty years ago when you were in San Francisco and part of a symposium.
Lobsang: Right. With Professor Needleman
works: Yes. You said some things that have stayed with me all these years. You spoke of “aesthetic thought.” I didn’t know what that meant. So can I just ask you what is aesthetic thought?
Lobsang: Aesthetic thought is allowing a thought to come forth rather than the habitual way of going looking for one. It comes from learning to be at-onement with the spaciousness of the mind and then, when one encounters a stimulus, rather than instinctively responding to it, having a direct experience of the stimulus, which then dissolves in the spaciousness. From the spaciousness of the mind, an impression –a mental representation—arises that can now be verbally described.
works: There are two parts to this thing, aesthetic and thought.
works: What you just described is not what I ordinarily consider as being “thought.” I think of it as a familiar mental, associative process—ordinary “thinking.”
works: What you described doesn’t sound like that.
Lobsang: Right. Generally, when we talk about thoughts, we are talking about an internal mental representation of a stimulus to which we project meaning. Here we’re talking about a more refined process of thinking—thinking that’s derived from a direct experience. That will trigger a preconception that waits for another direct experience that results in a realization that gives rise to a conception—a thought that can be described–a primitive thought, then leading to successive refinements. Aesthetic thought is therefore a more refined way of thinking.
So when I talk about thought, I’m referring to this combination of the two things; they are undifferentiated. Having a direct experience comes from emptying your mind of memory and desire—and then letting the direct experience become the source for thought.
works: Interesting. I’ve done a lot of photography and have had many deep experiences looking at things. And I’ve noticed that when I’m looking at something that way there isn’t this inner chattering that’s almost always going on.
works: It stops when my attention is somehow in that kind of looking state. I’m not saying that associations don’t occur, but something else can happen in that mode.
Lobsang: When you are at-onement, thoughts cease. Even the stimulus you are at-onement with no longer is this or that, but just is.
works: Would say this term aesthetic thought includes nonverbal processes?
Lobsang: That’s right.
works: That’s helpful. It’s a very deep idea. I think here in the West, we always associate “aesthetic” with beauty. In Tibetan is there an equivalent word for “beauty”?
Lobsang: In the highest form of Buddhism, mental events are seen as the play of the mind that arises as a part of an internal drama, and then its nature is to dissolve into the spaciousness of the mind. However, our desires and memory prevent their dissolution.
By overcoming our desires and memories, mental events become the play of the mind—created and differentiated by the mind. But when one is at-onement with the nature of the mind, that differentiation is overcome, and joy follows.
works: Would you say more about how joy appears in this way?
Lobsang: If it’s a play of the mind, you are no longer controlled by it. More importantly, you can access the underlying biological energies that sustain the intensity of affect, including negative ones, in the service of joy.
Let’s take anger–if you experience it as a play of the mind, all you’re left with is the energy produced by the anger, which can be channelized through advanced yoga to burn up your anger and replace it with joy. The biological energy/arousal underlying anger is separated from its cognitive and feeling component and the underlying energy is transformed through the practice of advanced yoga.
You need years of training, on one hand, and fearlessness on the other to embark on this journey.
works: You’re describing a very high thing. It reminds me of a few rare moments I’ve experienced where it’s been possible to embrace something that in the past had always instantly caused me to react to with some attempt to fix it, or to suppress it. And actually, in those particular moments, joy appeared immediately.
Lobsang: That’s right. It’s a sense of freedom—you know, the freedom that oppressed people strive for from their oppressors. But the real freedom we need to seek is from our minds, from our thoughts and projections.
works: Yes. There’s another thing you said in the symposium: “In the West we’re too fatigued to practice aesthetic thought.” Would you say something about this fatigue in the West?
Lobsang: Fatigue because of the dread of giving up habitual thoughts and projections that give us a self-contained sense of safety and permanence.
works: In general, the demands of life weigh one down—certainly here. But there are certain vivid moments of being present that probably everybody has—maybe especially when they’re young. But no one helps them value such moments. So they get covered over and one just gives up, in a certain way.
Lobsang: That’s right. The process is non-conventional, and embarking on that path means risking isolation and derision.
works: In his book Shambala, Chogyam Trungpa talks about a Tibetan word dralha. This is a real Tibetan word?
Lobsang: It’s a real word.
works: It was described as referring to a moment of direct relationship with what’s in front of one, a moment when all my preconceptions are cleared away and I’m directly present. He said it was a big word, even associated with the divine.
Lobsang: Dralha is the inner protective energy—the inner fearlessness that protects us from external misfortunes, but more importantly internal demons, as we embark on the spiritual journey of seeing everything in its undifferentiated state while abiding in an unsaturated state of mind.
works: In the West we have little, or no, concept of unsaturated mind.
Lobsang: It challenges all our needs to saturate our mind constantly to give us a sense of self.
works: In Tibet is there a word equivalent to our word “being”? We have the word, but I’d say it’s almost empty. In Shakespeare there’s “to be or not to be.” But it hardly opens up beyond this sort of yes/no. In Tibetan Buddhism is that a word that means something?
Lobsang: Yes. Being fully present and experiencing all experiences as a play of the mind.
works: Well, if I am totally present, then I exist.
Lobsang: If it means being present fully in the relative world with the understanding that at the ultimate level everything is a play of the mind, it’s the essence of the Tantras.
works: Does sensation come in—the contact and awareness of sensation, of being present that way in my body?
Lobsang: At a basic level, sensation is the means to understanding thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness seeks to train you to sense pleasurable, unpleasurable and neutral sensations underlying any experience in order to differentiate them. And then becoming aware, through mindfulness training, how these sensations trigger craving for the pleasurable and avoidance of the unpleasurable sensations, and indifference towards neutral sensations. These in turn trigger approach-avoidance and inactive behavioral responses. In this way you can then generalize the skill to differentiate between wholesome and unwholesome thoughts and feelings. Rather than rely solely upon an authoritative agency to determine what is wholesome and what is not, one develops the ability to make that determination based on direct experience and behavioral experimentation.
Lobsang: In Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, mindfulness is focused on connecting to your sensations. When you have a thought, you don’t jump and look at the thought. You ask, “What is the sensation in the body when I have this thought?” Then, if you get really good at knowing the sensation that accompanies a particular thought, it will be a window to understanding the intention or motivation that unconsciously triggers negative thoughts or angry feelings.
works: In our culture today with our smart phones and digital devices, it seems that more and more we’re living just in our heads—this is, in our “thoughts.” We have very little, or no, relationship with the sensation underlying them.
Lobsang: That’s right.
works: I find it frightening.
Lobsang: It can contribute towards disconnection from one’s lived experiences. When you live in a world of the senses, you become more and more reactive to the immediate stimulus. You split yourself from your inner, unconscious world. You can think, reason, make decisions and engage in desired behavior, but may never develop the capacity to enter into your inner, unconscious world.
works: Our digital devices capture our attention and in return, give us some kind of pleasure—entertainment and distraction, but it’s only a virtual life.
Lobsang: Often the line between happiness and pleasure is a fine one. Pleasure is primarily sensate stimuli-driven on which we project our meaning of happiness. That’s why, even though we know that pleasure is fleeting and from time to time seek deeper happiness, our attachment to pleasure never lets us move forward completely.
works: The difference between happiness and pleasure is a big thing.
Lobsang: It’s critical
works: So here’s the other part I remember from your talk all those years ago. You said that aesthetic thought, when it reaches a certain level, makes it possible to bring the numinous down into circulation. And without the numinous being brought down into circulation a culture can’t survive. So would you say something more about that?
Lobsang: There are varying levels of the numinous. At the lowest is when one becomes at-onement with a stimulus and the subject. When the mind and the object, the stimulus, become one, joy is produced—which can provide the impetus to access reality.
At the middle level, the union of the masculine compassion and the feminine compassion produces infinite joy that opens the undifferentiated state of the two to realize the true nature of the self and phenomena.
Finally, at the highest level, the union of the male and female energy results in channelizing the united energy to open the chakras and thus facilitate the clear light nature of the mind.
works: So bringing the numinous down so that it can come into circulation in the culture—can you say something about how can that can take place?
Lobsang: In relative terms in our daily lives, the numinous can be experienced briefly when one is totally at-onement with our experiences, including with another person. At an advanced level from years of practice, the numinous state becomes an indescribable emotional experience, an experience that transcends subject-object differentiation.
It can come into circulation because people who have that, to some degree, they have an energy, a presence, that influences; they respond to events quite differently, but in a compassionate way, not in a narcissistic, way. And people who are receptive to that can feel it and be inspired.
works: Before we’d had this conversation, I was thinking that aesthetic thought must have some relationship with art. Can art play any kind of role in this way?
Lobsang: Yes, to an extent – an artist can convey the state of undifferentiated subject and object in his or her work.
works: Some art has a kind of magic, one could say, and can touch people in a deep way over long periods of time. I know that in Buddhism, there are thangas and sand paintings—and other forms—but they seem to be very fixed.
Lobsang: Yes, in one sense it’s true. For a practitioner who has been practicing for years, the representations can trigger the union of wisdom and compassion to overcome the limitation of his or her yet unrealized mind.
works: In looking at statues of Buddhas, every now and then I’ll see one and its expression seems to be very alive. Does this make sense to you?
works: This could be in the realm of art, I would think.
Lobsang: For a keen and realized person, the statue conveys the internal states he or she is seeking to achieve.
works: About a year ago I got a little Tibetan Bell, a flat one. I have some friends who make them. Before I sit, now I ring this little bell. Listening, I noticed right away all this inner interference that gets in the way of simply just hearing it. So I wondered “If I continue with this every time I begin to sit, how will my relationship with its sound evolve?”
It wasn’t long before my awareness expanded to the people who made the bell. Then at a certain point, I realized the bell begins with materials dug from the ground and eventually that material gets refined and can ring with a beautiful sound. It struck me as a metaphor for some process that might be able to happen in ourselves. Is this sort of thinking that a Tibetan would relate to? What would you make of this?
Lobsang: The bell signifies wisdom. But the sound it produces represents the moment to moment changing nature of all phenomena. By repeatedly mediating on each sound of the bell, the practitioner will have a direct experience of moment-to-moment change. That realization then can become the basis of acquiring an inferential understanding of impermanence. Such an understanding becomes the key to understanding the day to day types of suffering, our emotional and physical pain, the suffering of change—and what we normally consider as pleasurable, but is, in its finality, the source of suffering.
The first major step in Buddhist practice is to come to terms with suffering and, rather than seeking to overcome it, come to understand its nature as a part of our life. Such an understanding can motivate us to address our suffering by more and more insight into how what we consider as pleasurable and the source of our happiness is actually the source of suffering.