In the world according to Chaphur Rinpoche, modern life is too fast-paced and cerebral. As a result “we have more struggles, stress and sickness,” he says. “This creates a mind and body disconnect, which leads to further emotional and physical imbalances, and problems in interpersonal relationships.”
We have just completed the last day of a six-night Keksel yoga retreat at Amantaka in Luang Prabang — the Laotian jewel of the Aman group’s three super-luxurious IndoChinese resorts — and Rinpoche is holding forth on the nuances of this most ancient of spiritual traditions.
We are sitting in the Buddhist Learning Centre, a quiet high-ceilinged room within the grounds of the 24-suite resort, its tall green windows shuttered against the fierce Laotian sun and the air inside scented with incense infused with juniper leaves and water from a lake near the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet.
At one stage, I am struck by the incongruity of taking lessons from a Tibetan monk on the cycle of suffering and delusion and the nature of impermanence when I am in the midst of such overt luxury. Suites here can cost between US$1,000 ($1,352) and US$2,000 a night.
And yet, somehow, this realisation brings me full circle to Rinpoche’s original axiom that it is attachment — along with aversion and ignorance — that binds us to a perpetual cycle of rebirth and existence, or samsara, if you’ve been paying attention during your meditation classes. Money won’t buy you happiness, even if you know where to shop. “If the whole world turns to gold, you still will not have enough,” he declares. As Rinpoche points out in his book The Heart of Spiritual Practice, all attachments “are poison… When attachment is absent, the suffering caused by it is removed, and it is much easier to be happy.”
By applying a light touch of Trumpian logic, I reason that if you’re going to learn how to detach from the shackles of worldly possessions and become truly happy, it might as well be at a place like Amantaka, where your commitment to the cause is bound to be fully tested at some stage between afternoon tea and the turn-down service — perhaps during the siesta in your four-poster bed or a bone-tinglingly good massage.
And, as Rinpoche would teach us, the crucible of that test is Keksel yoga.
It can be difficult to precisely articulate what Keksel is, especially as it requires a preliminary explanation of Dzogchen. At its most fundamental, Dzogchen is the process of looking inwards, the idea being that everything we need to achieve enlightenment can be found within ourselves. There is no need to look outside for another source of wisdom. Inner awareness is the alpha and the omega of the spiritual process.
In turn, Keksel is a series of physical movements and discipline which has been designed over 18,000 years to facilitate Dzogchen.
Though the word “yoga” is attached to it, Keksel, as I would discover during the retreat, bears only a very superficial resemblance to the Iyengar or Hatha yoga with which most of us are familiar. For one thing, its 40 postures — each evocatively named, like Hawk Holding Breath and Wild Yak Nudging — involve long stretches of breath-holding, and when strung together in a Vinyasa-type flow, left us all panting and red in the face.
For another, tsa lung — the accompanying breathwork, or the Keksel equivalent of pranayama — involves a great deal of visualisation, particularly of the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth, which are believed to be the foundation of our bodies. They are also expressed within us through the interconnection of our consciousness, breath, heat, blood and flesh. They are connected to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and spleen which, in turn, are connected to the five poisons of anger, attachment, jealousy, pride and ignorance.
The goal of the spiritual practice embodied in Dzogchen and Keksel is to transform the five poisons into the five wisdoms of emptiness, mirror-like wisdom, wisdom of equality, discriminating wisdom and all accomplishing wisdom.
In short, balanced elements create a harmonious life, health and energy field and full-fledged spirituality. Unbalanced elements lead to physical ailments, emotional, mental disturbances and, well, a whole world of pain.
Breath-holding is important, Rinpoche explains, because our energy pathways are invariably blocked. Stopping the breath creates an internal pressure that, when the breath is released with an explosive shout of “ha!” and “pay!”, forcibly expulses the blockage. And in turn, the visualisation exercises are designed to heal, to connect the movement of energy within the spiritual body, and to develop inner awareness.
Rinpoche demonstrates one of the more advanced postures in which he twists his legs into the lotus position and then, while still seated, very casually, leaps a foot off the ground. “People say we’re flying, but really we’re just jumping!” he explains cheerfully.
“All very well when you’re young and fit like you are,” I think a little sourly, but later, back in my suite, I watch on YouTube an elderly Keksel practitioner repeatedly leaping into the air and while airborne, folds his legs into the lotus and lands, in that position, on the floor with a resounding thump. I realise then that karma always has an answer for everything.
In his book, Rinpoche explains that as we learn to turn inward, we will notice energetic patterns being created and stored within the body so that, in essence, we become what we think. “These energetic patterns quickly become your reality… and you begin to manifest your inner thoughts out into the world in a tangible way.”
In a way, it’s no surprise to learn that many of Rinpoche’s students are nurses and physical therapists. After all, the idea that the mind can create a tangible reality is not so far-fetched, especially since Western science and medicine has, over the past few decades, begun exploring themes that Asian traditions, not least Keksel, have long regarded as received wisdom.
While I am at Amantaka, global scientific circles are abuzz with the announcement that a paralysed Frenchman has successfully moved his limbs using a mind-controlled exoskeleton.
It’s a little telling that by the end of the retreat, I am physically and emotionally exhausted. Sedentary habits of a lifetime have taken their toll and I’ve not been prepared for the daily schedule of morning meditation, two 90-minute Keksel sessions, and post-dinner mantra-chanting and meditation.
It certainly hasn’t helped that Amantaka has pulled out all the stops to test the progress of our spiritual detachment, including staging leisurely lunches of local curries and sticky rice in its shaded colonnades, leaving cool towels by the capacious dark-tiled pool and providing whisper-quiet service.
At one stage during the 10th round of a mantra for enlightenment, I think to myself that I’m in desperate need of a nap. But then I am reminded that Rinpoche, currently seated at the front of the room looking handsome and serene at the same time, became a monk at 12, and when he was 16, he literally walked out of Tibet and kept walking till he arrived in India. I can’t remember what I was doing at 16, but it probably involved a television set and whining about being hungry.
And just like that, quite without my noticing it, I realise I have begun to redirect my thoughts and emotions.
Tonpa Shenrab, the ancient teacher who developed Dzogchen and Keksel, said that we have to train our mind to understand that what we currently have is always enough. And sitting there in that darkened room at Amantaka, literally in the lap of luxury and softly inhaling incense infused with Tibetan herbs, I gather my thoughts and return to my breath.
Breathing deeply and chanting “a om hung a a kar sa le od a yang om du” — a mantra to clear and focus the mind on its inherent essence.
At some stage, I become aware of a thought, skating just below the surface — a realisation that I am happy and blessed to be here at this point in time and in this place whose very name, Amantaka, is a portmanteau of “aman”, Sanskrit for peace, and Tipitaka, a reference to Buddha’s teachings.
And it’s enough.
This story first appeared in the January/February issue of A Magazine.