A Life of Light
The Transfiguration as a Visualization
of the Authentic Nature of Reality
This relatively short essay seeks to weave together three years’ of thought around my experience of how Vajrayana, or Himalayan/Tibetan Buddhism continues to nurture my own understanding and awareness of my root practice of Christianity. Much more could be said, but this essay hits the high points with (hopefully) enough clarity that I will continue my reflection.
(I found this image online with no attribution, and I find it fascinating–especially laid alongside the image from the Dzogchen teachings in Vajrayana Buddhism found below)
Engaging the texts
How do we read the Biblical stories in a way that actually affects the way we live our lives? Do we see the texts as a transformative space themselves, a means for a sort of catalytic experience, or do we see them as mere historical or even doctrinal expositions that remain on a rational level? From my years as a parish priest, I have experienced how the texts can change the way we think about God and ourselves, but our engagement with them remains predominantly on the cognitive level. We analyze them, debate them, and engage with them through our thinking minds–with occasional moments of having our hearts stirred.
The story goes that in 3rd century Egypt, St. Anthony, at a critical moment in his life, heard someone preaching from the Gospel account that we should sell all we have and give it to the poor. He was so inspired and convicted that he immediately went and liquidated his estate and gave it away, setting aside enough to care for his sister before going to live in the desert and focus his life on the cultivation of an awareness of God’s indwelling presence. Apparently he later went and sold the remaining portion as well, inspiring his sister to enter into a life of intentional prayer.
These days, many people share that they liked a sermon or found it inspiring (on our better days), but the comments all orbit around the central point of “it made me think about it more” or “I’ve never thought about it that way,” or sometimes “I have no idea how you could think that.” Perhaps there is a dynamic of inspiration there–both on the part of the preacher and those who hear or experience the text–but I continue to be challenged by how I see the texts remaining on the rational level. How can we move out of our heads and into our hearts–and even bodies–more fully and be transformed by the truth we encounter?
In my own spiritual practice, I have become deeply inspired by the visualization exercises found within Himalayan or Tibetan tantric Buddhism. There is a dynamic of engagement there with various guided exercises that truly transform the way I live my life, and my experiences with these practices have led me to explore the Biblical texts in a much more holistic and embodied way. Such tantric Buddhism is teaching me a new and powerful way to explore the wisdom within the scriptures from my own root tradition of Christianity.
For me, there is no other text that has been more transformative when explored as a visualization practice than the story of the Transfiguration. It has become a sort of hermeneutical or interpretive key that unlocks how I understand the mystery we so easily call “God” and the mystery of my own self–with a profound awareness of the complexity of what I mean by “self.”
There are three descriptions of the Transfiguration encounter, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each of these follow the same basic framework of Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up on the mountain for a time of focused prayer. The basic story describes how the disciples see Jesus illuminated before them, sharing a conversation with Moses and Elijah who appear beside him in a moment that transcends the limits of linear time. Peter speaks and suggests that they construct three dwellings, one for each of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. After Peter’s comment, the three accounts all describe how the disciples are overshadowed (in the traditional interpretation) by a cloud. When the cloud diffuses, the disciples, the text says, saw only Jesus standing there, and they are guided not to speak of what they have experienced.
I have spent the past few years deeply reflecting on the trajectory of this story, noticing the movements within the text: going away into a time of focused reflection, finding themselves in awe at witnessing the brightness radiating from Jesus, witnessing the conversation that reframes their concept of time, daring to express the all-too-human desire to capture the moment, having their urge to grasp challenged, and being enveloped by a particular phenomenon that shifts them away from their rational focus.
A more dynamic engagement or practice may connect with the deep searching that many are holding in their hearts these days–but struggle to encounter within the traditional frameworks of what we may call the institutional or traditional church environment. Put another way, how can we actually move from exploring the story of the Transfiguration to actually experiencing the Transfiguration itself? Here is where my heart feels pulled
(This image is a visual representation from the Dzogchen teachings within the Vajrayana tradition in Himalayan or Tibetan Buddhism)
For fifteen years, I have been drawn to the rich teachings and practices of Himalayan or Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the meaningful visualization practices that are a hallmark of Vajrayana. There was a time when I explored Ignatian practices and glimpsed some of the same aspects within broader Christianity, but on the whole I have not found visualization to be central to Christianity. I think this absence is rooted in a distrust of spiritual imagination within our cultural context as well as the legacy of a Greco-Roman emphasis on rationality.
Within Himalayan Buddhism, we find visualization placed front and center in one’s daily practice. There is a recognition that the way we see the world is deeply skewed by our own ignorance or delusion, aversion or hatred, and greed, what are traditionally known as the three poisons. Our practice is to release or relax into the true nature of reality, where we realize that we “exist” as an interdependent expression or embodiment, if you will, of a cognizant and spacious awareness.
Here the writings of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1996) have been particularly meaningful for me. He describes how the primary struggle is a shrouding or delusion of the true nature of reality.
This buddha nature is always present, and the only thing that conceals it is our own thinking. Nothing else obscures it. The essence becomes obscured by the expression. (1)
Our practices seek to remove the obscuration–or, more precisely put, to let them fall away as the cognizant and spacious nature of mind settles into itself.
This visualization is ultimately not a matter of imagining something to be what it isn’t, but rather, of seeing it as it actually is. It is acknowledging things as they already are. This is the essential principle of Vajrayana. (2)
Our own drive or impulse to grasp onto some mental control sets in motion the pattern of obscuration that blocks the radiance of the true nature of reality. We can be freed, as it were, from this misperception, with an experience of release. As Urgyen Rinpoche says, again,
This thinking of your own mind’s thoughts is exactly what hinders and obstructs liberation and enlightenment. . . . To stop thinking, you need to recognize your essence. It’s like seeing the sun in the sky just once–forever after, you know what the sun looks like. If you chase one reflection of the sun after the other, you’ll never be able to see all possible reflections. There is no end to that. The sun in the sky is the real sun, and without it, there would be no reflections. Its reflection in the water is only an imitation. In the same way, all thoughts are only expressions or displays of your essence; they are not your essence itself. (3)
The Transfiguration as Visualization
When I lay the teachings of Vajrayana alongside the trajectory of the Transfiguration story, I cannot help but notice obvious parallels. There is an encounter with a deeper aspect of reality (witnessing Jesus’ own embodiment of light), an urge to grasp onto control through a rational plan (Peter’s idea to construct three dwellings), and then a moment of being enveloped by some mysterious cloud that reorients the disciples’ vision into an even greater spaciousness.
The image of the cloud is particularly important for our discussion. While the traditional interpretation of this is that they were overshadowed by a cloud, there is an energetic resonance between this story and the account of Moses on Mt. Sinai that holds an interpretive key. When the summit of Mt. Sinai was enveloped by a cloud, it was a symbol for the Hebrew people that the very presence of God was there. It was imagined as a cloud on the summit of Mt. Sinai, like with the Transfiguration encounter on Mt. Thabor, but Matthew’s account gives us an additional and crucial detail–that it was a bright cloud that saturated the environment. In this way, the focus of the story moves from merely witnessing the brilliance of Jesus’ person to the disciples themselves being saturated by a brilliance that reveals the nature of reality heretofore not witnessed in their lives. The image of being overshadowed is meant to focus our attention not merely on any obscuring of physical sight, but rather on being able to see even more deeply through a more subtle lens that allows one to perceive a deeper reality.
St. Gregory Palamas (14th century), in a section of the Orthodox collection known as The Philokalia describes–in an argument with striking resonances with Urgyen Rinpoche’s teachings on the essence of Vajrayana practice–what it was that the disciples actually encountered.
Thus Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something He was not, nor by the transformation into something He was not, but by the manifestation to His disciples of what He really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While He himself remained the same, they could now see Him as other than he had appeared to them formerly. (4)
The encounter begins with them seeing Jesus, but it progresses further until their eyes are opened in that moment of brilliance. The end of the particular story illustrates it best, I think: the text says that, when they opened their eyes “they saw only Jesus.” Perhaps the deepest reading of this story, nurtured by this visualization, is that it isn’t that only the person of Jesus was standing there; rather, it was that the Light was the only thing there was to see. All of reality is an expression of, as Urgyen Rinpoche and others may say, the cognizant and spacious awareness. So, we see how the disciples through and within this bright radiancy caught a glimpse of the fullness of existence.
The Orthdox scholar Andreas Andreopoulos emphasizes this crucial insight as well in his book This is my Beloved Son. And, in fact, he pushes the argument even further to claim that the thrust of the Transfiguration permeates our lives here and now, reflecting on how St. Paul elaborates on the rich theme of the Thaboric Light:
Paul is emphatic: the Transfiguration is not an event that belongs to a distant past, irrelevant to the life of the faithful. Instead, he helps us see the Transfiguration event from a different perspective: what happens to Christ also happens to us, to the church. This passage builds on the connection between Christ and the church and it guides us to understand and apply the biblical message beyond the confines of historical time. (5)
As Andreopoulos says, the Transfiguration becomes a template or framework through which we can understand more deeply the fulfillment of humanity–all of creation–through the fullness of the Creator–the reality of the divine. “In the Transfiguration everything becomes clearer, as if the curtain of the mystery has been lifted a little more.” (6)
The disciples (and thusly we, too, through our practice) experienced a transformation of consciousness through the experience. As Andreopoulos says, the expansive perception experienced by the disciples was not “intellectual” but “ontological,” marked by an awareness of union:
Since we cannot expect that there was any change in Christ himself during the event of the Transfiguration, any change that took place actually occurred in the disciples and not in Christ. (7)
Sharing in the Transfiguration
If we can explore this insight through such visualization and see how it resonates with the disciples’ own experience, the meaning of the story can take root in our own hearts and nurture our own deeper awareness of not only Jesus’ true nature and the disciple’s reoriented vision, but perhaps our own true nature as well.
When the pandemic first began in March 2020, I struggled to settle into my new pattern of life and ministry. I felt uprooted and disjointed. My anxiety would spike as I saw again and again how I was not going to be able to resolve the tensions felt by my parishioners. I felt a heightened sense of my own grasping to fix or solve the problems that we were facing–my own craving to construct something to give me certainty–and I was thrust even more deeply into my own spiritual practice with a deep yearning for grounding. I was challenged to become more curious about my own self.
About a month into the lock-down, I had a powerful dream about the Transfiguration itself. I had been led back to the text again and again for a while, and I was intrigued as to why I kept being called back to this particular story. My dream was one of those particular dreams not focused on specific people or scenes but rather focused on insight or teachings. I encountered a voice that shared two vital things for me: the first was that “the light came from within,” and the second was that “the Transfiguration is not ultimately about Jesus but about us.” I woke up abruptly and, having learned to pay attention to dreams like this, I immediately went downstairs and wrote out the details in my journal. This teaching felt like a transmission to me–it still does–and I was thankful for the release I could feel in my body when I reflected on it.
I began meditating on this story, noticing the deeper movements that stirred within me as I slowly reflected on the wisdom that I noticed in the text.
The insight from the dream was clear, and it continues to challenge me to pay attention to both my own resistances as well as my deeper yearning to release my grasping and rest in what the visualizations of tantric Buddhism have opened up for me within my own root tradition. I will be forever grateful.
- Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, As It Is, Volume 1 (Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1999), 46.
- Ibid., 70.
- Ibid., 78.
- Gregory Palamas, “The Declaration of the Holy Mountain in Defense of Those who Devoutly Practice a Life of Stillness, “The Philokalia, volume 4, translated and edited G. E. H Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995), 422.
- Andreas Andreopoulos, This is My Beloved Son: The Transfiguration of Christ, (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2016), 13.
- Ibid., 37.
- Ibid., 90.