Chakras and Kundalini ... What's all the Fuss?
Over and over again I always hear people talking about chakras and kundalini when it comes to meditation and spiritual cultivation. Because of the early influences from Indian yoga and then the introduction of tantric methods of Tibetan Buddhism into popular consciousness, many people think that chakras and kundalini are the most important things to be cultivating on the spiritual path.
This is a terrible contamination of ideas that has entered "New Age" culture. These people couldn't be more wrong.
Even in Tibetan Buddhism, it's recognized that the spiritual path can be broken up into five large stages:
Most everything that you see in popular religion -- attending church or temple services, doing good deeds, reciting scripture and prayer, and so on -- is only spiritual practice at the stage of Study and Merit Accumulation.
That's where nearly 100% of humanity is at on the spiritual trail, and that's where they're doomed to stay unless they start to cultivate meditation practice. In order to become awakened or enlightened, you have to devote yourself to intensified spiritual practices that cultivate the Tao.
At most, people on the road of organized conventional religion can hope to clean their minds a little bit and accumulate some merit from this sort of effort, but that's about all. Unless you are cultivating meditation practice, the most you can hope for after death is to be reborn in a minor heaven, and after that merit is used up, once again you'll come back down for rebirth in this world.
Then, however, there are those who actually engage in devoted meditation practice and start cultivating the realms of samadhi and dhyana. Those are the folks at the Stage of Preparatory Practices, or Intensified Yoga Practices. These are the people whose stories you read about in ancient books, for these are the folks who become prophets, gurus or masters.
These are the people truly on the spiritual trail, but most of the saints and sages of mankind who climbed to this level of achievement never went far enough to reach the Stage of Seeing the Tao.
As to the Stage of Preparatory Practices, it can itself be divided into four distinct stages or phases, which are:
When someone starts activating their prenatal energies that come along with life, which is called the arousal of kundalini, that's only the Stage of Warming within the Stage of Preparatory Yoga Practices, and nothing more. It's not the ultimate goal of the spiritual path, and certainly doesn't guarantee success on the spiritual trail. It's just the initiation of this stage of practice effort.
Typically people cultivate the four dhyana in the Stage of Intensified Preparatory Yoga, but not everyone can cultivate all four dhyana. In fact, most cultivators can only cultivate the first dhyana or second dhyana because of the continuance of mental clinging habits, especially if they use a cultivation method that is based on form. The large majority of masters in the world only attain to these lower levels of dhyana; although people call them "avataras" and "enlightened" this is far from accurate.
Even should someone be able to cultivate all four samadhi-dhyana, it still doesn't guarantee them entry into the Tao. For that, people have to forget about the four dhyana and higher formless absorptions and turn around to realize the root source of their mind. That's why Buddha told his student, Ananda, that someone could cultivate the four dhyana and four formless samadhi absorptions and still not realize their original nature! There can still be the tiniest bit of mental clinging that prevents self-realization into one's original nature ... what we normally call God, the Tao, Emptiness, or Formlessness. Buddha himself cultivated eight great stages of samadhi, and only afterwards did he reach the Tao.
So what's the big deal about kundalini?
It's only the phase of Warming in the Stage of Intensified Yoga Practices of the spiritual path!
It's only the first phase of the second stage of the path, and there are three more phases to be mastered at that stage of cultivation, and then three more larger stages of the path to go!
Many cultivation schools advise you to cultivate your kundalini energies directly through visualization methods, or by concentrating on your chakras, or through pranayama breathing techniques. The Zen school, on the other hand, just says to cultivate your mind and your kundalini will naturally arise.
In truth, if you just match your thought with your breath, your kundalini energies will just naturally arise. It takes some time, but you can do it that simply. This is one of the reasons that mantra practice is so popular in the world's spiritual schools -- if you cultivate the body's wind element, you can ignite its fire element. Mantra practice, which involves calming both your breathing and your mind, is one way to cultivate the chi or wind element of your physical nature.
Breathing practices are another way to ignite kundalini energies. They aren't the only or ultimate means of practice, but just a convenient means of practice. As to emptiness meditation itself, "from the extreme of yin then yang will arise," so that's another powerful form of practice, too, and the most naturalistic one in tune with the path.
The forceful breathing methods employed by Taoism, yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Tantra and other form based cultivation paths are based on the principle of using a match to light a fire; once the fire is forcefully ignited, then the match is discarded because it isn't needed anymore.
So how does this information help you?
It corrects one big mistaken New Age notion by telling us that kundalini cultivation is only at the lowest level of the spiritual path, and is no big thing in itself. It's just cultivating the prenatal chi of your body that comes along with life and rests in the perineum.
It's a convenient means of practice to get things started, but not the only means of practice.
If you really want to cultivate your chi, just cultivate an empty mind and then your chi channels will open and transform, and one day the "clumsy fire" (as the Taoists call it) or "Fierce woman" (as the Tibetans call it) will arise naturally. That's all you need to do ... you don't need to resort to forceful breathing techniques.
Remember that to cultivate your kundalini, this means that your chi mai (energy channels) must already have been transformed, which is why many schools stress the purificatory breathing practices of pranayama. If the chi mai are blocked it will never arise so if you practice mantra recitation, and use mantra practice to quiet your mind, this will accomplish the chi mai purification naturally.
Of course, this brings up the topic of chakras.
What are the chakras?
They are simply places in the body where various chi energy channels meet. When you cultivate for a long time, you can begin to see the chakras in the body whose energies undergo either a counter or clockwise rotation. Rather than concentrate on the chakras, it's better to notice from their internal light that your body is divided into three separate areas, or fields, which Taoism calls "elixir fields."
Taoism dispenses with focus on the particulars of the chakras, and instead says one should cultivate their elixir fields through emptiness meditation. To me -- from a bit of experience -- this is a vastly superior viewpoint.
Now here's the important thing as regards chakra kundalini cultivation ... chi tends to mass in the body at certain points, and being a nexus, the chakras are such points. You can therefore concentrate on the vision of a silver flame, moon or bright light at one of the chakras in hoping that the chi will mass at that area. All sorts of shiny visualizations will do, for when you're successful, your chi will mass there and flicker like shiny silver. Instead of "silver" we could also substitute the words "shiny white" because of the brilliance.
Where your thoughts go your chi goes, so focus can mass your chi at any area of concentration and hopefully the concentrated chi energies will then cause other chi to rise up your chi channels.
Concentrating on the upper chakras will pull other chi up the chi channels to meet it, and like a siphoning hose, pull chi to the top of the head to start a full circuit circulation of chi in the body. Kundalini cultivation is therefore a type of internal yoga, but not really mind cultivation. You have to let go of the whole process, and rest in emptiness (the cardinal rule of the spiritual path at each and every step of the way), for real mind cultivation to take the stage.
Normally the various form-based cultivation schools -- and we are talking about esoteric (Tibetan) Buddhism, yoga, Tantra, Sufism, western alchemy, and even the practice of the American Hopi Indians -- concentrate on visualizing chi flames at only four main chakra locations in the body: the third eye region above the nose and between the eyebrows (where the du-mai and jen-mai channels meet), the crown chakra, the heart chakra and the belly chakra.
Sometimes people will concentrate on the throat chakra instead of the crown chakra, and sometimes people concentrate on other areas. Regardless, concentrating on the higher chakras pulls the chi upwards whereas concentrating on the belly chakra, and getting it to ignite, will push the chi upwards when someone is successful.
Is chakra cultivation the ultimate form of cultivation, or even necessary?
Like kundalini cultivation, it is only a convenient method of practice, but not the only method or ultimate method of spiritual practice. In fact, it's overly concentrating on form, which is why the Zen school ignores this sort of effort and yet still ends up producing the same stages of transformation and the most number of enlightened successes.
In terms of the five skandhas of Buddhism, cultivating the chakras is only at the level of the form and sensation skandhas which means that there is still the conception, volition and consciousness skandha to cultivate through. So how can cultivating the chakras, or kundalini, be considered anything close to the major thing you're after?
Cultivating your kundalini isn't cultivating the Tao. It's just a very minor step of the path involving the physical body that belongs to the Stage of Warming practice. If it was the end-all, why are there still the Stages of the Peak, Forbearance and Highest Worldly dharma?
Cultivating the chakras is only at the stage of chi mai cultivation, and not the stage where you are actually cultivating the chi of your body. Once again, this is only a very low stage of the cultivation path ... there's so much more cultivation to go. Cultivation itself is actually cultivation of your mind and behavior, and getting to the ontological root source behind matter and mind. Cultivating one's kundalini, on the other hand, while part of the kung-fu of the path, is not a major aspect of the spiritual path.
It's sort of silly when you think of it ... there are an uncountable number of sentient beings in the universe of all shapes and forms and realms, and many don't have this body or chakra system of ours. So why should you focus on this perishable, non-universal form and its transformations instead of cultivating the essence of your mind, which is universal?
Does it also make sense to study all those tantric texts about the chakras, their colors, meanings and so forth?
I used to go in for that sort of thing when I was younger and was seeking the path, but frankly, this information is pretty useless. First of all, a lot of this information is inaccurate and secondly, the Zen school points the way in ignoring it because it really cannot help you. The true Tao school, and Buddhism for that matter, ignore them as well. They acknowledge their existence, and yet they don't pay these things too much attention.
To make spiritual progress on the cultivation path, you should wonder why.
Shakyamuni Buddha knew that focusing on the form based path would cause all sorts of problems, so he wisely stayed away from too many details on those things. Rather, he just mentioned them through his teaching lectures on the four elements, which describe everything quite nicely.
Even Tibetan Master Tsong Khapa restricted himself by just saying to focus on visualizing little flames on four major chakra locations -- the belly, heart, throat and brow -- in order to cultivate tantra, and that's about it. You don't need to describe their characteristics or know what they do. You just want to ignite your chi circulation, and then get out of the way to let what is supposed to happen to naturally happen. You just use chakra and kundalini cultivation to light the match, and then once lit, forget about it because it's served its purpose.
If you can attain samadhi then you'll know the purpose of the chakras and what they are for, but otherwise you're just putting a lot of garbage in your head that won't help you on the spiritual path. So my best advice is to forget about them otherwise than to know they are there, and to recognize that not knowing is absolutely no impediment to the spiritual path, and knowing doesn't really help that much either.
So what should you do if you really, really want to do kundalini cultivation and ignite your chi circulation? If you really want to understand this material from all sorts of different aspects, than I suggest you pick up a copy of How to Measure and Deepen Your Spiritual Realization which goes into this topic in depth. Don't forget to download the case studies on kundalini that come from this book and whose download instructions are automatically delivered when you sign up for our newsletter. If you want a more round-about route, then read these four books and you'll also have a general idea of what to do:
That's the best I can do in such a short space other than to say -- and emphasize once again -- that kundalini and chakra cultivation are just natural roads that fall out of the path because of the physical nature of our bodies, but are not the only way to cultivate or the supreme way to cultivate.
In fact, as my teacher pointed out, most of the people who concentrate on this sort of effort doom themselves to a very low stage of cultivation, never get very far and create terrible clinging habits that follow them for life after life (which is the big catastrophe).
They focus on form and sensations to such an extent that they cut off their wisdom life He therefore considered most Tibetan Buddhist practitioners -- and remember that he's recognized as an enlightened adept of the school -- as failures who hanker after kung-fu rather than enlightenment.
Even those who do attain samadhi in these schools almost always retain clinging habits to the form and sensation skandhas so that they never reach the Tao ... in spite of developing superpowers, samadhi attainments, projection bodies and so forth.
These schools really produce more failures than heroes, so be careful. Don't fall into the propaganda that most of the adepts of these schools became enlightened.
If you know how to take the medicine of the esoteric schools to help you and then drop their practices when you've achieved the requisite results, then fine, but don't go jumping to the conclusion that the form-based schools are the highest schools of the cultivation path.
They are just a convenient method of practice for those who might have the wisdom and merit, but the highest path is really the Zen way which, even in Esoteric Buddhism, is recognized as the most esoteric of the esoteric sects.
The Zen method is universal across the universe, so consider wisely what I've been saying and if you want to learn more, browse our list of products on meditation techniques.
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