“One of the most enlivening, exciting, and fulfilling discoveries we can make as human beings is finding that our emotions are actually reflections of our awakened enlightened potentialities.”
Spectrum of Ecstasy explains ways to work with the emotional texture of experience. It is one of the most important introductory English-language books on Vajrayana Buddhism. Since its original publication in 1991, it has been enormously influential for all of Buddhism in the West—the mainstream perhaps even more than Vajrayana, ironically.
Spectrum of Ecstasy is a foundational text for Evolving Ground, the community of contemporary Vajrayana practice I co-founded. An apprentice group has created an eight-part study guide for participants in our community reading group. If you would like to join a group, let us know.
Questions about the practice of Dzogchen trek-chöd described in the book sometimes come up in the Evolving Ground discord. I have collated some posts from the #book-club channel into a page here.
In this web page, I’ll summarize the content of the book, and then discuss its historical importance.
Spectrum of Ecstasy
Our normal experience of emotions, both positively and negatively charged, is constrained. We limit our emotions with seemingly endless thought stories, patterns of justification, explanation, wish-fulfillment, and so on. This book describes a view and a practice that will liberate emotional experience from these habitual constraints into their unbounded, natural state.
The authors, Ngakpa Chögyam with Khandro Déchen, present the spectrum of emotions through the lens of the Vajrayana elemental system. Earth, water, fire, air and space correspond with five qualities of being. Each quality can manifest in either distorted or liberated forms. The system describes how we habitually distort experience in order to feel solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined—at the cost of possible liberation.
We experience emptiness as a threat: as insubstantiality, impermanence, loneliness, discontinuity, and nebulosity. In response, we try to fixate referentiality; to nail the world down. We are attracted to whatever substantiates our sense of security and definition. We are averse to whatever threatens, and indifferent to whatever neither substantiates nor threatens. We can understand these patterned responses and their liberated qualities through the symbolism of the five-element system.
We are not ordinarily aware of these patterns; they are adaptive responses to the precarity of living. On becoming aware, we can experience all emotions in their raw, physical location in the body, free from the usual conceptual involvement that perpetuates them. That is a doorway to freedom from a habitually constrained existence. Experiencing the raw sensation of an emotion with non-conceptual clarity gives space for the sensation to manifest in its unconstrained, natural state. When we have mastered the practice described in the book this liberative process happens instantaneously.
The book describes a symbolic system within which to practice liberating the emotions. For example, the earth element can symbolize firm foundations in life—experience that seems like “solid ground”. But a sudden accident changes things forever: that which is solid melts into air. Just as erosion wears down mountains, a great reputation and widespread fame may fade. Or, as in an earthquake, things we take for granted are suddenly, irrevocably disrupted. The constricted reaction to unstable events manifests in feelings of fragility, insecurity, and insubstantiality. But that same emotion, when discovered with spaciousness, is expansive and generous.
The method itself is a form of trek-chöd, a practice from the early days of Dzogchen. The Tibetan phrase literally means “hard/thorough cut” and is commonly translated as “cutting through.” This particular version of trek-chöd relies on previous meditation experience, namely shi-ne (opening awareness). You need to be able to experience the arising sensation of the emotion in the body without interference from thought-stories and conceptual elaboration. With concept-free spaciousness, the method is to “stare into the face of the arising sensation.” To engage in the practice, allow the conceptual narrative that usually surrounds an arising emotion to dissipate. Then gaze into the heart of the sensation as it arises. Chapter 12 describes this in more detail.
An original combination
The transmutation of the five poisons (kléshas) into the five wisdoms is shared across Buddhist Tantra, but there are ways in which the presentation in Spectrum of Ecstasy was unprecedented in its style:
- Its description of the Tantric transformation of the elements from the perspective of Dzogchen.
Spectrum of Ecstasy was unique in describing the application of trek-chöd in terms of its specific effect as experienced through the categorization of the emotions into the five-element system. The principles of Tantric practice are purification and transformation. Although Spectrum of Ecstasy refers to transformation quite often, the practice of trek-chöd is Dzogchen and works on an instantaneous basis. The sensation of emotion, its “raw texture,” is experienced in the moment of arising as already liberated. Once this method is mastered, there is no process of purification, no work or effort required, not even “unclogging” to go through first.
- The English language descriptions of the form and emptiness aspects of the five elemental qualities
Presenting the element system in terms of the distortion of nondual experience as a response to the threat of emptiness is, I think, original to Ngak’chang Rinpoche (Ngakpa Chögyam).The five elements and their corresponding form/emptiness pairs are:
Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen are in the tradition of the few teachers to have attempted poetic re-presentation of Vajrayana’s systems into a terminology designed to speak to our culture. I find the language used to describe the element system in Spectrum of Ecstasy beautiful and inspiring as an example of adherence to principles of practice in translation. We attempt to emulate its precision in developing a language for Evolving Ground.
- The specific correlation between the Tantric elemental symbolism and personal psychology.
Spectrum of Ecstasy uses the language of neuroses and psychoses: “the Earth element neurotic wants recognition and dominion, to establish security beyond any doubt…”1 Prior to Spectrum‘s publication the Tantric perspective on dualistic being had only ever been presented through lens of the skhandas, or kléshas, “defilements” or “poisons” that must be purified or transformed. The book lifts the dualist experience of being away from the moral dichotomy of purity versus impurity placing it, instead, in a psychological framework. Using the Dzogchen framework to do this is neat: early Dzogchen transcended Tantra in a similar way—it shattered the pure-impure dichotomy associated with previous Tantric worldviews, refusing to separate Samsara from Nirvana.
As far as I know, the only Vajrayana teacher to have done something similar at that time was Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. One of Trungpa’s earliest publications, Journey without Goal (1981), presents the symbolism of the five Buddha families manifesting as qualities of energy, emotion, and wisdom. His later publication Orderly Chaos (1991) develops the theme of the of the five skhandas—not as fixed aspects of egoic self-construction as typically presented, but as confused perspectives that can be transmuted to wisdom. And Transcending Madness:The Experience of the Six Bardos, published posthumously in 1992, was an interpretation of the Six Realms of Being as psychological rather than literal. The material in Spectrum of Ecstasy was first published as Rainbow of Liberated Energy in 1991. They never met, but Ngak’chang Rinpoche has spoken of Chögyam Trungpa’s teaching as one of his inspirations and I think the influence shows in Spectrum of Ecstasy.
Although the elemental framework presented describes a general system for understanding personal psychology, the trek-chöd practice itself is not a psychological or psychotherapeutic method. In the practice method, feelings are not explored; they are not analyzed or understood in terms of their personal, individual meaning. The distorted emotional qualities—insecurity, fear, loneliness, paranoia, and alienation—are general, common experiences of being. The specific personal circumstances that give rise to them are irrelevant to the practice and the method lets go any need to label. This, in itself, can be liberating.
The element system described in the book is a framework that can help understand what happens during the practice of trek-chöd, but it is not an objective truth about the world. It is not necessary to immerse oneself in the view from that system in order to engage with the practice. Some practitioners immerse themselves completely and “live the view” from the system; others relate to it as a sometimes-helpful way of seeing; some simply engage directly with the practice without categorizing emotional experience.
Its publication and influence
In the 1990s and 2000s Rainbow of Liberated Energy, then later Spectrum of Ecstasy, was in every Buddhist section in practically every bookshop. I remember seeing it in bookshops in Nepal. It was studied widely by Buddhist groups, including ones not based in Vajrayana. It introduced the West to the possibility that Tantra could have a distinct, directly transformative relationship with the emotions, through practices of view and simple meditation methods, without the liturgy, sadhanas, and rituals that accompany more elaborate Tantric practices.
The phrase “embracing emotions as the path” is now in common usage in Vajrayana. Unfortunately it has escaped its context and it, and similar phrases, are also used in Sutric Buddhist systems deriving from renunciative traditions. Trying to embrace emotions at the same time as embracing a renunciative worldview causes contradiction and confusion. But in its inception this phrase, coined by Ngak’chang Rinpoche to describe a Dzogchen view of the element system as a framework for the practice of trek-chöd, was unique to Spectrum of Ecstasy.
- 1.Spectrum of Ecstasy pg. 126