Three Levels of Spiritual Practice

The use of elements in spiritual practice varies according to whether the approach is through (1) shamanism, (2) tantra, or (3) Dzogchen; that is, the external, internal, or secret levels.


Externally, the elements are not only the raw elements of our sensual experience—(1) the earth we live on, (2) the water we drink, (3) the fire that warms us, (4) the air we breathe, and (5) the space through which we move—they are also the spirits connected with the elements.

These include goddesses, elemental spirits, and other beings. Working with these beings is a common practice in Tibetan culture and is the domain of what I’m calling shamanism, though I want to be clear that there is no word like “shamanism” in the Tibetan language.

Tibetan traditions of working with spirits originated in Bön but are now found throughout Tibetan culture.

Many decisions made by Tibetan officials and high lamas of monasteries of all sects are made partially through consulting human oracles and non-physical beings.

Tibetans do not like to think of this practice as shamanism because for some Tibetans the word is related to animal sacrifice or to a more primitive spirituality. What I am addressing here has nothing to do with such things. Rather, these are practices taught in the first four of the nine levels of spiritual teachings of the Southern Treasury of Bön teachings.


The internal elements are the elemental energies rather than their forms.

In our bodies these are the physical energies that pump our blood, digest our food, and fire our neurons, and also the more subtle energies upon which our health and capacities are based and depend.

Some of these subtle energies are now recognized and studied in the West through a new familiarity with the Eastern medical models that inform acupuncture and the new uses Western medical researchers are finding for different vibratory treatments.

There are also much subtler energies that cannot be detected by physical measurement but that are available to direct experience through yogic and contemplative disciplines.

This subtler level of elemental energy not only is found inside the body but is also the dimension of energy that skilled practitioners of feng shui—the Chinese art of appropriate placement of objects—sense in the environment.

These are also the energies that build in group phenomena like crowd behavior and patriotism and so on. Tantra works with these energies by guiding them in the body for specific purposes using direct yogic means involving physical posture, breathing, visualization, and mantra. Tantra recognizes the energies as divine forces.


The secret dimension of the elements exists beyond duality and is therefore hard to describe with language, which necessarily divides experience into separate objects.

This most subtle dimension of the elements is the radiance of being, the “five pure lights,” aspects of the luminosity that, inseparably united with emptiness, is the basis of everything.

The practices and teachings associated with this level of the elements are from Dzogchen, the Great Perfection.

These three dimensions are separated only conceptually. This is an important point to keep in mind when reading this book.

It is a mistake to think that external, internal, and secret can truly be divided, or that external practice, tantra, and Dzogchen are mutually exclusive.

Confusion on this point leads to many of the great divisions in belief: religions that disregard or mistrust the life of the body; secular cultures that do not recognize the sacred nature of the earth; or preoccupation with material well-being that ignores spiritual development. All of life is important and arises from the sacred elements.

The view of Dzogchen is ultimate and contains the others, but this doesn’t mean that the lower views should be neglected.

Believing that everything is insubstantial luminosity is very different from being able to walk through walls. The highest practice is the one that is most effective, not necessarily the one categorized as “higher.”