Lighting the inner fire: subtle body as the path to Enlightenment — the five chakras, three channels and two drops of Tantric Buddhism and their practice

“In my teaching I emphasize that Enlightenment is found in the body. This draws on Dzogchen, where you are told that when you put your awareness in the body in the right way, you encounter your awakened state. I also point out that through meditation we realize that awareness is not located in the head, it is in the whole body.” Reginald Ray, Tibetan Scholar and Meditation Teacher [1]

The “whole body” referred to by Reginald Ray includes both the coarse body and the subtle body. In Tantric Buddhism, the understanding of the subtle body is essential: chakras and channels.

Note: Seek the advice and permission of a teacher to engage in actual Tantric practices. This feature is only a general information story. Practice requires full instruction.

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In Tantric Buddhism, subtle body is important

In Tantric Buddhism we recognize more than one body for humans, including — as explained by H.E. Zasep Rinpoche in a Medicine Buddha retreat — “course body… our organs, lung, and heart, this is our course body. Then, there is subtle body. According to Tantra, we talk about chakras, and we have energy channels, the subtle body.” [4]

Healing practices in Vajrayana inevitably involve subtle body. Centuries of successful healing Tibetan and Chinese medicine and various Tantric healing methods certainly present convincing anecdotal support for its effectiveness.

Understanding the subtle body is also critical to practicing certain higher tantric practices, such as Tummo and completion practices. Even the most basic of understandings is helpful to all Tantric Buddhist meditations. The Six Yogas of Naropa, for example, is a pre-eminent practice that involves subtle body. [See the great Lama Yeshe speaking on the Six Yogas of Naropa below.]

Lama Yeshe on the Six Yogas of Naropa:

What proof is there that subtle bodies exist?

Tummo practice is often pointed to as “proof” of subtle body. Experienced practitioners can meditate naked in sub-zero weather without discomfort.

None, is the short answer, at least concerning pure science. Anecdotally, there is some substantial support for the subtle body, such as studies of Chinese Medicine. Acupuncture — which focuses on subtle body meridians and acupoints, are considered by many to be proof of chakras, meridians and their connection throughout the subtle body. Acupuncture’s ability to suppress pain during significant surgery has been well-demonstrated. Other than anecdotal support, we cannot prove or disprove the subtle body — any more than we can scientifically prove life after death or rebirth. It’s just too subtle to measure with instruments.

Ultimately, though, the proof is irrelevant. Firstly, because we’re doing visualization practice, and working with “mind” — which in turn can influence body regardless of objective proof of chakras. Secondly, because of the “observer” factor in Quantum Physics. Quantum “guru” Niels Bohr said in 1920: “Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it… We compel a quantum particle to assume a definite position.” In other words, as explained by physicist Pascual Jordan: “we produce the results of measurements.”

This conclusion tosses out notions of objective reality, independent of the observer — and it definitely aligns with one of the main tactical purposes of Vajrayana Buddhism: seeing things as they are (Sanskrit yatha-bhutam darshanam)[3] With this in mind, if we meditate and visualize subtle body and chakras — especially, if we reach the level of a Yogi or Yogini — our visualizations become inseparable from our “eye” observations — which “disturb what has to be measured.” [For more on this notion, see “If this exists, that exists.“] [Okay, it’s not that simple, but this isn’t a feature on Emptiness. For a story on Emptiness, please see..]

Most teachers, such as H.E. Zasep Rinpoche, also point to the long history of accomplishments of Tibetan Yogis and Yoginis. In speaking on healing and health in a Medicine Buddha retreat, he talked about both the effectiveness of Acupuncture and the long history of Gurus and teachers who have used subtle energy practices to attain realizations, and even “longevity.” It is difficult to brush aside centuries of lineage experience.

Old Tibetan medicine drawings illustrating the subtle body, including the chakras and channels.

Four, five, seven or ten chakras

In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, five chakras are visualized as the connecting points of the three channels: central, left and right.

Although in Tibetan Buddhist (Tantra) practice there can be four, five, seven or ten chakras, we mainly speak of five critical chakras of the “subtle body.” These are the focus of Trantric Buddhist meditational practice. Three of these are consistent in all methods (whether you use four, five, seven or ten chakras) — while the remaining chakras tend to appear in higher yogic practices, such as Tummo and Completion Stage practices. In other Indian Tantric meditation there are usually seven chakras — such as seen in Kundalini practice (Note: Kundalini is not a Buddhist Tantric practice; in Tantric Buddhism, the methods are different (as are the chakras); techniques such as Tummo are better known.)

H.E. Zasep Rinpoche, in discussing the importance of the subtle body in healing, explains the five chakras and three channels:

“We have crown chakra, we have throat chakra, heart chakra, navel chakra and secret chakra. Five main chakras. Chakra is a Sanskrit world that means ‘energy wheel’… These chakras all have different names. Crown chakra is called the ‘chakra of divine bliss.’ Throat chakra is the ‘chakra of enjoyment.’ Heart chakra is the ‘chakra of Dharma’ — or understanding. Navel chakra is the ‘chakra of manifestation’ or emanation. The secret chakra is the ‘chakra of holding bliss.\’”

Due to confusion with “new age” chakras — which are typically seven, and based on Indian yoga — most Vajrayana teachers don’t touch on Chakras until students are advanced.

Teacher Reginald Ray explains:

“I don’t talk about chakras specifically until people become Vajrayana students – because of the New Age connotations – but things come up in their experience that correspond to what we think of as the chakras.”

The most important are notably the three universal chakras of crown, throat and heart. When we prostrate to the Buddha, we touch each of these chakras as we bow; some people touch all five chakras when they prostrate. The navel chakra is also common to all chakra systems in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism: four, five, seven or ten, but may not be emphasized in devotional practices. The secret chakra tends to be limited to Higher Yogic practices, and the remaining two or five (depending on system) are highly specialized practices.

They are the junction points for the three main channels (central, left and right), ultimately connecting the 72,000 nadis (channels) which carry vital La (“life force” in English, Prana in Sanskrit, Chi, in Chinese) to every cell of the body.

You visualize your own body as hollow, the nature of divine light, and in the centre of your chest you visualize seed syllable of your meditational deity. In this case, the syllable is HRI, the Dharmakaya (see below) seed of Amitabha, Chenrezig, Hayagriva and Padma family deities. Visualizing seed syllable at ONE chakra — the heart — is the one practice common to most deity practices in Tantric Buddhism. Amitabha, or any member of the Padma family, symbolize Compassion. Meditating on Hri at the heart brings compassion to the heart chakra.

Why is subtle body important?

Three channels of the subtle body, central, left and right.

Reginald Ray said:

“According to tantra, Enlightenment is fundamentally and originally present in the body. By putting one’s awareness in the body you find that the further down you go the more primordial, unconditioned and unmanifest is the energy you encounter. The chakras begin at the perineum, which is the most primordial level of awareness, and as you go upwards they are more connected with expression. At the navel there is a sense of the earth, stability and equanimity; at the heart is a feeling of warmth and compassion; the throat is about communication, expression and connection; and the head is less a conceptual centre than a place where the energy reaches a crescendo. So the different chakras have very different feels.”

At a more pragmatic and fundamental level, subtle body is essential for healing, such as Medicine Buddha meditation or La Gug. For higher practices, subtle body is tied to completion practices and a key to Enlightenment or realizations. Also, the chakras and even the number of spokes or petals in each chakra are critical to visualizing the “body mandala” — a higher-tantra practice. Famously, it is the key to Tummo practice — generating the inner furnace.

Some practices focus on only one chakra — for example, visualizing the seed syllable of Buddha at one’s heart — and others emphasize three, notably crown, throat and heart (for example, when prostrating). Most, but not all Tantric Buddhist Practice emphasize the five chakras of head, throat, heart, navel, and secret; or, at least the four of crown, throat, heart, navel.

The first three are important, as they symbolize the activities of the Buddhas, and ourselves: body, speech and mind:

  • Crown: Body — also, “waking” activity
  • Speech: Speech — also, “dreaming” activity;
  • Heart: Mind — also “sleeping” activity. Note: in Tantra, “mind,” not to be confused with ‘brain,’ is always associated with the heart, not the head.

Empowerment and training

Working with the energies of the subtle body should be guided by a teacher. Teacher Reginald Ray explains:

“You can talk about them in general, but Tibetan tradition maintains it is better not to expose untrained people to the actual techniques, because they can mess you up when attempted without the proper training. They are ways of contacting the energy domains the chakras represent in a much more naked way than humans normally experience. As human beings we never really understand directly the energy of love or expression, or whatever. Our experience of them is filtered through a highly developed process of ego: desires, aims and so on. Sexuality is the one energy that can break through, which is why people are so obsessed with it. It is the one aspect of their life where they have to let go.”

In working with the chakras we remove the coverings of our energy system and meet our energy much more directly. When ego templates are stripped away we are left, for example, with the spontaneous outpouring of love for other people. The reason we work with chakras in Tibetan Buddhism is to actualise the Bodhisattva Vow of saving all beings. We have to realise the great compassion of the Buddha, where there is no impediment between the natural compassion of the energetic body and other people.

The “bodies” of the Buddhas

Without getting into specifics of a practice — which requires a teacher and empowerment — other vital differences with Indian Tantra include the associations of three of the chakras with the “bodies” of the Buddhas:

  • Throat: Sambhogakaya, Body of Enjoyment (sometimes “Bliss Body” — which is why it is called the “Enjoyment Chakra.” This is the manifestation of an Enlightened Being as the “object of devotion” or the Body of a Buddha as it appears in the Pure Lands.
  • Heart: Dharmakaya, Body of Essence (sometimes ‘Truth Body’ or ‘Unmanifested Body’) — “Dharma Chakra”: this is why, for example, the unmanifested ‘seed syllable’ of the deity is visualized at the Heart Chakra. (Dharmakaya also is associated with our own Buddha Nature, and also with Emptiness.)
  • Navel: Nimanakaya, Body of Transformation (sometimes ‘Body of Manifestation’) — “Manifestation Chakra” (For example Shakyamuni Buddha as a human emanation, or ourselves as physical beings.)

What do the bodies mean? In the doctrine of Trikaya, Buddhas can manifest in different “modes of being” depending on the understanding of the student. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha manifested as Nirmanakaya, the Body of Manifestation.

The two drops — advanced Tantra

H.E. Zasep Rinpoche explains the importance of “drops” in his teaching on Medicine Buddha:

“Then we have in Tantra, what we call ‘drops.’ Like a drop of water. In Chinese Medicine, they have Yin and Yang, female and male, which must be in balance. Here [in Tantra] we have the drops, we call “essence.” It’s like the “sperm” and the “egg” — the white and red. The white is the “sperm,” and the red is the “egg” — male and female. So, we all have this essence… We call it white bodhicitta and red bodhicitta. Essence.”

Again, without getting into practice details, which require empowerment and instruction from a qualified teacher of lineage, two of the chakras are also associated with the all-important red and white drops. These drops are crucial and fundamental to working with Tantric Buddhism’s understanding of the subtle body as a method for transformation, realizations and, ultimately, Enlightenment. Without going into secret detail, the red drop is visualized in the navel and the white subtle drop in the crown (head) chakra. It is through working with these drops, and the various winds (La) and channels that one can attain realizations of bliss and emptiness — also thought of as compassion (male) and wisdom (female.)

One of the beginning practices for “inner” tantra is the famous “nine breathing exercises of Naropa. Drupon Sangye Nine Breathing Exercises of Naropa:

Visualizing the chakras

The chakra spokes.

Taking instruction from a qualified teacher is essential. The attributes of the chakras can vary, depending on the tantra practiced. Also, it’s easy to be confused with either Indian Tantra, or with very pervasive “new age” chakra symbolism and imagery. Forget most of the images you see online for chakras and inner bodies, as these are 99% based on Indian yogas or new age practices.

In Buddhist Tantra, for example, the spokes of the wheel (or, alternately, petals of the flower) are entirely different — and these are important, as each spoke or petal represents a flow of energy into channels throughout the subtle body:

  • 32 spokes or petals at the crown chakra (head)
  • 16 spokes or petals at the throat chakra
  • Eight spokes or petals at the heart chakra
  • 64 spokes or petals at the navel chakra.

Correspondences of the Five Chakras

The five chakras are, in English: crown (top of the head, or just above the crown), throat, heart, navel and secret (the sex organ). There are numerous important correspondences for each — which require a teacher’s explanation — but the always-present chakras include Body (crown), Speech (throat) and Mind (heart); these relate to the Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha. To summarize some of the correspondences:

  • Crown chakra: Mahsukha chakra • 32 spokes or petals • white drop • activity of body • waking • wrathful deities
  • Throat chakra: Sambhoga chakra • 16 spokes or petals • Sambhogakaya enjoyment body • activity of speech • dreaming • wisdom deities • fire element
  • Heart chakra: Dharma chakra • eight spokes or petals • Dharmakaya • activity of mind • sleeping • peaceful deities • space element
  • Navel chakra: Nirmana chakra • 64 spokes or petals • red drop • Nirmanakaya or manifested body • activity of manifestation • physical manifestations (such as Shakyamuni Buddha) • earth element

All tantric practices, even the basic ones, include visualization of at least these three chakras. The remaining two, navel and secret, are always there, but may not be visualized actively in more basic practice. They are critical, however, to higher tantra, tummo, the Six Yogas of Naropa, and Completion Practices — all of which are higher practices requiring initiation and teachers.

The colours and correspondences assigned to the chakras varies by individual Tantra. When practicing a Higher Tantra, the student should focus on the correspondences of that tantra instruction.

Sometimes — but not universally — the five Dhayani Buddhas are associated with the five chakras (and this varies somewhat on the tantra practiced and also the school):

  • Crown (white): Body, Dhyani Buddha Vairochana or Vajrasattva
  • Throat (red): Speech, Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, and Padma Family (includes Chenrezig, Hayagriva and so on)
  • Heart (blue): Mind, Dhyani Buddha Akshobya, but also including Medicine Buddha, etc.
  • Navel (yellow): Tummo Fire, Dhyani Buddha Ratnasmbhava and Jewel Family — i.e. associating Ratnsasmbhava with manifestation and earth.
  • Secret (green): Wind Action, Dhyani Buddha Amoghisiddi and the Double Vajra Family including Green Tara.

Correspondences change based on practice

These assignments are over-arching, but they change, just as do mandalas in meditation, depending on the Enlightened Deity practice. Usually, for instance, in a mandala, the meditational deity is always in the centre. So, for example, if Amitabha is normally in the “west” of the Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, he is visualized in the centre during his meditational practice. Likewise, a practice on Amitabha may visualize Amitabha’s seed syllable at the Heart Chakra. Mandalas and correspondences change with practices. Always be guided by your teacher and your practice.

As you can see, understanding subtle body is not as simple as memorizing five chakras. The inner body has a main central channel, two side channels (all of which meet at the five chakras) — but these are, in turn, connected to numerous meridians and 72,000 nadis throughout the body.

Completion practice, especially, uses all five chakras very actively, as a method to attain Enlightenment, but requires a teacher and initiation.

[1] Dharmalife
[2] Reginald Ray teaches at Naropa University and the Dharma Ocean Foundation. ( He is the author of The Secret of the Vajra World: the tantric Buddhism of Tibet and In the Presence of Masters

[3] “The strange link between the human mind and quantum physics” BBC

[4] Quotes from H.E. Zasep Rinpoche from the Medicine Buddha Weekend Retreat video series>>

This content was originally published here.