I have seen the light since childhood. It has faded and returned and peaked and vanished based on my concentration and my activities. I began meditation at age 11 in karate class and continued in my teens, sometimes for longer sessions and sometimes inadvertently when “meditation came to find me”. I have practiced daily or stopped altogether at various times over my life, but I have remained fascinated by my experience of visually seeing light with my eyes closed, enough to learn about it from traditional sources, which ultimately led to my study of qìgōng. Seeing the light is a direct observation of your subtle energy, or qì (氣). This subjective experience is not a topic one can openly talk about with most people without raising eyebrows, but I’m compelled to humbly attempt to share my understanding for multiple reasons: to inspire discussion of the fundamental purpose of qìgōng and meditation, and to pay respect to the now-fading traditional lineages of internal energy practice.
I have always had an intense preoccupation with my somatic experience, a deep curiosity about the nature of reality and the universe, and a pursuit of the truth. As a teen, I had an existential crisis about the meaning of life, and read about the world’s religions, philosophy, Existentialism, and everything I could find about higher consciousness. This gradually led me to beginner zen and then traditional Buddhism. Stabilizing the mind and seeing the light is only the beginning of meditation practice.
The concepts of human energy and light preexisted the Buddha and was taught widely in the area of India/Nepal /Bhutan by Hindu/Vedic practitioners. Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was the most accomplished of these meditators, around 500 BC, and his teaching has been continuously transmitted in an unbroken oral tradition and in the writing of sūtras as writing became more common after his death.
In the early Buddhist texts, there are mentions of luminosity* or radiance referring to the development of the mind in meditation. In the Saṅgīti-sūtra, it relates to the attainment of samadhi, meditative absorption, where the perception of light (āloka sañña) leads to a mind endowed with luminescence (sappabhāsa). There are levels of Samadhi, each with its own "realm" or sign that manifests as different types of light, ranging from a view like a hazy mirage to bright white light filling your view, accompanied by a riveting energetic feeling that can't be described with words.
In the Dīrgha-āgama sūtra, Buddha describes:
"Consciousness that is invisible, Infinite, and luminous of its own: This ceasing, the four elements cease, Coarse and subtle, pretty and ugly cease. Herein name-and-form cease. Consciousness ceasing, the remainder [concepts/marks] also ceases."
The above describes the process of entering the deepest level of our consciousness during meditation, which is also experienced during a natural death. This luminous mind is our most basic consciousness without thought or concepts. The Theravada school identifies the “clear light” or luminous mind with the bhavanga, the base consciousness, a concept first written in the Theravāda Abhidhamma (300 BC). Mahāyāna (Greater Vehicle) practitioners identify it with bodhicitta, awakening mind, the root of enlightenment. The luminosity of mind is of central importance in the philosophy and practice of the early Buddhist tantras, Mahamudra and Dzogchen. This practice of looking inward in meditation and all mind/body arts is the basis of yogā.
“Meditators experience emptiness as a kind of fullness. Emptiness allows for the unimpeded radiance of intrinsic awareness. In the experiential sense, then, it is not only a lack of something, but also a quality of knowing, or pristine cognition, a luminous quality that is the actual nature of the mind that can be experienced once the veils of concepts and emotions has been cleared away. This experience is often referred to as clear light or radiance and also as “compassion”. It is not something other than emptiness, for without emptiness it could not occur. It is the radiance-awareness that is the primordially pure basis of all manifestation and perception, the buddha nature.” - Sarah Harding
“Resting in the view of primordial purity – the spontaneous flow that is fresh, comfortable, and naturally free – without ever parting from the four methods of “leaving things as they are”, on is striking at the very heart of the appearances of luminosity…By means of such practice, all phenomenal appearance, generated by impure karmic wind-energy (qì), will be purified in the expanse of indestructible primordial wisdom. The vajra body, the rainbow body beyond all transference, will thus be attained.” - Jamgön Mipham
Clear Light Experience
Having an experience of visible light repeatedly during meditation over the years is only an indication that I am a layperson beginner “on the path”. A brief, fleeting experience of the light is called “example wisdom”. It is not the Buddha Nature, but it can lead there with repetition to “actual wisdom”. This experience starts the process of bringing the energy into the central channel. The clear light experience is universal for all types of meditation and prayer for people in various cultures all around the world. It is fundamental in Tibetan Buddhism which is considered the treasure house preserving ancient Buddhist knowledge and methods, with a tradition of 108 exercises to systematically lead energy into the central channel. The Six Dharmas or the Six yogās of Naropa include the clear light experience as a progressive stage in meditation absorption, or samhadi. This path of “skillful means” is what we today call energy work and qìgōng:
• Tummo - the yogā of inner heat, or mystic heat.
• Osel - the yogā of clear light, attained through sitting meditation absorption.
• Milam - the yogā of the dream state, solidifying the clear light experience.
• Gyulu - the yogā of the illusory body, energy body leaving the physical body.
• Bardo - the yogā of the intermediate state between death and the next life.
• Phowa - the yogā of transferring the consciousness to another being or another realm.
This “Unsurpassable yogā” was transmitted by Buddha intended only for practitioners of highest ability capable of regulating themselves in accordance with careful rules and appropriate behavior.
Yogā Means Union
I believe this lineage of Mahāyāna should be understood as the origin of what is now known as yogā and qìgōng, leading to the development of other internal arts. Of course, great developments in yogā and qìgōng should be attributed to many great teachers in India, China, Tibet and other areas respectively, but their root of Yogācāra should not be forgotten. Practitioners of qìgōng, tai chi, hatha yogā, meditation and other forms of meditation are yogis and yoginis, or tantric practitioners. Specifically, yogā refers to the union of your highest consciousness with the universal consciousness.
In short, the reason that qìgōng and yogā exist originally is to support to pursuit of enlightenment, or omniscience, Buddhahood.
Long before the dramatic arrival of the dark-skinned monk Bodhidharma at Shaolin Temple (around 500 CE), eventually becoming the abbot and 28th patriarch of Buddhism, this “mind-only” teaching and related internal arts were widely practiced across what we now call India, Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet, and the surrounding areas. Though some doubt has been cast on Bodhidharma’s teaching of martial arts by certain researchers, traditional sources show that tantric or Mahāyāna practice was prominent at the time and continuously transmitted in the region for 1,000 years prior as a fundamental aspect of Buddhist training, especially in the region Bodhidharma hailed from. It is reasonable to believe tales of Bodhidharma telling monks to train their bodies in order to pursue enlightenment, and his transmission of this classical Buddhist practice into Chinese culture with his writing and teaching of the Brain / Marrow Washing and Muscle / Tendon Changing qìgōng.
I sometimes tell students my personal story, approaching the study of qìgōng “backwards”. I didn’t go to qìgōng hoping to feel Qi or have more energy. I began to read about qìgōng in the 1990s because I already had too much energy, and I was seeking help for my out of control energy and strange meditation experiences. It was difficult to find any books on the topic or accurate information, and there were certainly no qìgōng classes available except in few areas near Chinese-American communities. Fortunately, one day a friend handed me the Qìgōng - Secret of Youth book by Dr. Yáng, Jwìng-Mǐng, and his practical approach to energy with his background in physics and mechanical engineering was crystal clear to me. I moved to Boston and went to his school to study, only to find there was no such thing as qìgōng class! Traditionally, one learns qìgōng within the study of a martial art, in this case either Shaolin Kung Fu or Tàijíquán classes. Determined to answer my qìgōng questions, I joined the school and asked him for a job in the process. Thanks to Dr. Yáng I have been immersed continuously in the study of qìgōng since 2001, directing many qìgōng and tai chi videos from Dr. Yáng and masters around the world. I attended special weekly qìgōng night classes, weekend seminars, as well as filming his qìgōng series, editing, rewatching and pondering the footage for years. I eventually took all the qìgōng classes repeatedly and became certified to teach, which has brought great meaning to my life since 2006. But I remain fascinated and hyper-focused on always learning more about the topics of energy and the mind, and my hope is for anyone interested to have a profound experience of their qì and their higher consciousness as a result.
Seeing Is Believing
Have you seen the light? It can be a tiny speck of brightness, like a single pixel, when your eyes are closed, or a brightness illuminating your entire vision. This light is not a metaphor or platitude or superstitious visualization. Our experience of the light can function as a measure for how well we are training meditation, and our mental and physical behavior in daily life.
The Upakkilesa-sūtra and its parallels mention that the presence of defilements "results in a loss of whatever inner light or luminescence (obhāsa) had been experienced during meditation". This refers to subtle mental barriers to meditation, as well as the guidelines of behavior, or precepts, given to monks, which read very similar to the Ten Commandments; their intention is to protect you from negative karma and resulting obscurations. This is true. I have observed this result and have practiced many things in meditation and qìgōng incorrectly deliberately in order to personally test them and dispel my own skeptical mind. I have arrived at true faith as a result, not magical thinking, but a genuine basic understanding and reverence of the power of intention and karma.
Karma means action. Every action has a reaction, whether the result is immediate and apparent or delayed and more distant. Actions based on helping others 'lift' your energy resulting in brighter light during meditation over time. Selfishness extinguishes the light. Not only our actions, but our thoughts and words also create karmic results. Karma always has these three components. Your consciousness at the moment of death influenced by your accumulated karma determines your next life, or reincarnation.
Many people think of the Dalai Lama merely as a political figure or pop culture icon, but he is in fact a tantric practitioner. His earliest books, and most recent teaching as he nears the end of his life, contain detailed 'pith instructions' known historically as oral secrets or 'skillful means'. I highly recommend reading "The Mind of Clear Light" for anyone interested in this topic of light and enlightenment or interested in transcending the process of rebirth. The Dalai Lama's daily practice involves beginning meditation about 3 a.m. and proceeding through the stages of deepening absorption, mimicking the death process until the breath stops. He has practiced this seven to eight times per day for decades. Training the mind to be familiar with these stages of consciousness is a key aspect of Buddhist practice and the process of taking an intentional rebirth, as in the tradition of high lamas and monks. The Dalai Lama has said he’ll announce his reincarnation intentions at the age of 90 (next year), so we may be privileged to observe this for ourselves soon.
In the Vedic scriptures many thousands of years ago, this topic of human rebirth is discussed in detail. The spark of vital force that passes from body to body in reincarnation is called the jīva. It is considered to be a nonmaterial particle, finer than the smallest material particles, but so potent that its influence permeates the entire body, both material and subtle. It is said that material objects, from people to galaxies to the entire material universe is destroyed in an ongoing cycle, but the antimaterial world and the beings who reside there are eternal. The material universe is said to contain one quarter of the energy, while the other three quarters comprise the invisible spiritual realm. Humans can ascend to this immaterial plane through cultivation of their energy and regulation of their behavior and emotions, plus an increase in altruistic thought and behavior, lovingkindness (metta). This process of self-improvement and ascension is what we today call qìgōng or yogā and is the basis of the world’s religions.
Prepare to Die
In Dream Yogā practice, yogis train to stay conscious as the body falls asleep, and then meditate in that lucid state. This can be very difficult. I began lucid dreaming practice in 1989 and have had the full range of experiences that you can read about. It is said that it is "seven times more difficult to stay conscious during the process of death". At the moment of death, after the heart and brain have stopped, your most subtle consciousness merged with your most subtle energy passes on to the next life, like passing a flame between candles. The personal identity we have created during this life is false and vanishes during death, but your true essence continues.
The practice of deepening meditation leads us to see and recognize our true essence. It is said that if you can calmly remain in this state during a natural death, you transcend this matrix of manmade complexity and suffering, samsara, and attain a level of enlightenment. Once you have stabilized your mind in calm abiding meditation, keeping it from scattering in confusion or sinking in oblivion, the following visual experiences can be expected to sequentially appear to your mind’s eye: an internal vision like a smoke moving in the dark, a slightly brighter mirage waving across your vision, a flickering light in the center, then a stable light like a candle gradually brightening, an exquisite view of sparkling lights akin to fireflies or golden threads, an expanse of white light, a period known as the red increase, an immense darkness and feeling of swooning, and finally the clear light. If you have become familiar with the clear light during life, then during death it is said one can choose where and how to take your next life, with intentional rebirth or “emanation”, as opposed to naturally occurring reincarnation.
These experiences will happen only with prolonged, repeated practice of meditative absorption. Experiencing the clear light requires careful and correct practice and is described as the basis for enlightenment. I personally have seen these various stages, progressing over hours past the “red increase” into the stage of the black void before being unable to continue. I’m still working on it. This practice trains us to connect to and recognize our most subtle consciousness merged with our most subtle energy, our core being, known as the illusory body in Buddhism, or the energy body in qìgōng.
The goal is to focus on the clear light during the process of death in order to “cross over”. The Vedas say
“That upon which a person meditates at the time of death, quitting his body absorbed in the thought thereof, that particular thing he attains after death.”
Our true essence is an immortal mindstream; a beginningless temporal sequence, or continuum of consciousness, extending over succeeding lifetimes, without an independent "self or soul".
Buddhism does not use the word “soul” as it has connotations with that false personal identity. Buddhist logic remains focused on the present moment rather than a future goal. Buddhism teaches that an individual is comprised of a transient combination of the five aggregates (skandhas)—matter, sensation, perception, predisposition, and consciousness—and has no permanent soul. However, your illusory energy body is said to separate from the physical body, travel through an intermediate stage, and then rebirth as a human or another life form based on your behavior in this life: hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human, demigod, or Buddha.
Gradually all sentient beings ascend through life’s universal moral lessons and eventually accomplish enlightenment, in one lifetime or many. When you are in this pure energy body state, you can see and hear others, and even hear their thoughts(!), but they can’t see you. The illusory body can transfer into other bodies, and enlightened beings can remain in pure energy form, or manifest a physical body at will, in order to benefit others. Sometimes this energy body graduates through the process of enlightenment to other realms of existence, various levels of “heavens” where beings reside “above” the human experience…Spoiler alert: this is the soul.
My energy body has separated from my physical body, and I personally have discussed this with others including Dr. Yang who have had this experience. When you see your body from the outside, the topic quickly changes from pondering “what if?” to wanting to understand how and why this happens. I quickly pivoted from agnostic uncertainty and a material worldview to suddenly having an unexpected seed of faith which has grown over the years. This transformative experience often affects people as it did me, causing an immediate shift in priorities toward spiritual practice.
In this current dark age of prophesied degeneration, the Kali Yuga or Age of Quarrel, it’s no wonder that the true meaning of spiritual traditions is fading, and definitions are distorted. We rarely discuss the soul, or our personal internal experiences or spiritual practice. But they say that light shines brightest in the dark. I am certain that society can benefit from an investigation of human energy and higher consciousness. My qìgōng master Dr. Yáng has said this is a spiritual century, with an emphasis on spiritual life rather than material, and I believe this is what the world needs now more than ever.
I’m aware it is generally advised to avoid attaching to visions or visual experiences in meditation, or even talking about them with others. Advanced training of tantric solo and partner practice is not supposed to be public, and is meant to be done only after empowerment, with permission and guidance from an accomplished teacher. There are dangers with incorrect practice. However, at this moment in time I sense that this important and rare topic should be openly discussed at least on a surface level to make people aware of this continuous lineage and the shared root of our qìgōng. I hope this brief overview can be of benefit to anyone interested in deepening their meditation practice, and I hope it can rekindle some interest in traditional sources of study.
This is article 1 in a 3-part series. Next, we’ll explore more details about energy practices tracing back for thousands of years.
The above is an original article by David Silver, author of several books, and video producer for YMAA Publication Center. Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming assigned this writing project to David as part of his certification process as YMAA Qigong Master which began in May 2001 and was accomplished in September 2023.
*Luminous mind (Skt: prabhāsvara-citta or ābhāsvara-citta, Pali: pabhassara citta; Tib: འོད་གསལ་གྱི་སེམས་ ’od gsal gyi sems; Ch: 光明心 guangmingxin; Jpn: 光明心 kōmyōshin; Kor: kwangmyŏngsim) is a Buddhist term which appears only rarely in the Pali Canon but is common in the Mahāyāna sūtras and central to the Buddhist tantras. It is variously translated as "brightly shining mind", or "mind of clear light" while the related term luminosity (Skt. prabhāsvaratā; Tib. འོད་གསལ་བ་ ’od gsal ba; Ch. guāng míng; Jpn. kōmyō; Kor. kwangmyōng) is also translated as "clear light" or "luminosity" in Tibetan Buddhist contexts or, "purity" in East Asian contexts.
Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Meditation
Sarah Harding and Jamgön Kongtrül
Jamgön Mipham (1846–1912)