Inner Visions & Running Trains

Author: David Christopher Lane
Publisher: MSAC Philosophy Group
Publication date: 1991

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Excerpted from


When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical

Garland Publishers, 1994 (New York)


Faqir Chand Meets the Tibetan Book of the Dead

One of the most remarkable aspects about the Tibetan Book of the Dead (or, more accurately speaking, The Bardo Thotrol ) [*NOTE: I will be using two translations here for my article: Evans-Wentz's famous work, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Causeway Books, 1973); and Francesca Mantle's and Chogyam Trungpa's The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1975). *] is the principle that whatever one perceives during the dying process is ultimately illusory. Experiences of seeing inner light, hearing wondrous melodies, and feeling sensations of being out of the body, according to The Bardo Thotrol , are but momentary reflections of one's own psychological condition. As such, they are not to be valued in and of themselves, since they cannot by their nature reveal the ultimate truth, but only--even if magnificently--obscure it.

The reason for this is simple, if profound: whatever one sees in the dying process is a projection from one's own self. Since this self/soul/ego in Buddhism is the root cause of man's suffering, and not a real and permanent condition, anything which reinforces, glamorizes, or even elevates its status is misleading and generative of delusion. The key to enlightenment in Mahayana Buddhism, unlike Christianity, is not salvation of the soul, but rather its annihilation as a continued sensation. Therefore, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a practical text on how to carry out the process of death to its terminal apex: extermination of the individual self. At first glance this may seem a bit extreme, especially to those steeped in Western religions which place a higher value on personal immortality, but in light of Buddha's teachings it is perfectly consistent with his philosophy which views death--real death--in a very positive light.

What is perhaps most intriguing about the Tibetan Book of the Dead , at least from a scientific perspective, is its thoroughly rational and skeptical character. Although the text does instruct the neophyte to accept the clear void light as one's own, it does not describe in precise terms what that light is. Instead, it concentrates on what the light is not . It is not anything which can be seen, heard, touched or felt--even on a higher or more elevated plane of awareness. It is, on the contrary, the suchness or context or spectrum out of which all things operate, but in and of itself cannot be grasped as any particular thing. Thus it is always identified through negation ( neti, neti ; "not this, not that") or through negative images: emptiness, void, vacuity, etc. It is, if we can describe it at all, no-thing.

The implications for the dying lama are clear: do not accept whatever may arise in the intermediate stage just after death, for each apparition betrays its real origin, imputing a sense of reality and permanence upon something which has neither. Realize, rather, that nirvana is the source from which all visions arise and is therefore itself not a vision. Or, put in more philosophical terms, truth is the condition from which all conditions arise--itself not being a secondary effect.

Surprisingly, one of the more lucid insights on the philosophy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead comes from a Hindu mystic, named Baba Faqir Chand, who apparently was not familiar with the original Tibetan text or its English translation. Although Faqir was not conversant with the Bardo Thotrol , he was nevertheless steeped in its philosophy as taught to him by his guru, Shiv Brat Lal of Gopiganj. Faqir Chand, like his lama counterparts, spent much of his life in meditation, attempting to consciously go through the dying process in order to prepare himself for his final exit. However, unlike others of his kind, Faqir left a detailed account of his some seventy plus years of meditation (ranging from 3 to 12 hours daily) which led up to his enlightenment. The result is a richly detailed account which provides a thorough understanding of how inner visions and the like are projected in the intermediate stages between life and death.

As the Bardo Thodol [sic] text makes very clear by repeated assertions, none of all these deities or spiritual beings has any real individual existence any more than have human beings. "It is quite sufficient for thee (i.e., the deceased percipient) to know that these apparitions are (the reflections of) thine own thought-forms." They are merely the consciousness-content visualized, by karmic agency, as apparitional appearances in the Intermediate state--airy nothings woven into dreams. --Tibetan Book of the Dead [*NOTE: Op. cit., pages 32-33. *]

Now, you see no Jesus Christ comes from without in anybody's visions. No Rama, no Krishna, no Buddha, and no Baba Faqir comes from without to anybody. The visions are only because of the impressions and suggestions that a disciple has already accepted in his mind. These impressions and suggestions appear to him like a dream. No body comes from without. This is the plain truth. --Baba Faqir Chand [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 4 *]

What strikes the reader almost immediately after reading both the Bardo Thotrol and The Unknowing Sage is the remarkable similarity between both texts. Whereas the Bardo Thotrol is written mostly in second person and third person, listing instructions for the departing soul, The Unknowing Sage is in first person, presenting the reader with Faqir Chand's frank autobiographical admissions about his meditative life. Yet, in both texts the respective philosophies coincide: 1) the illusory nature of religious visions; 2) the limitations of knowledge, both rational and transmundane; and 3) the principle that the ego/self/soul is the real cause of man's unenlightened state.

How Faqir Chand came to this realization is an interesting story in itself, especially for someone steeped in the Radhasoami tradition. From a very early age, Faqir was prone towards mystical experiences, oftentimes seeing religious visions of Krishna and Rama, who would, we are told, instruct Faqir on various aspects of his religious life. Eventually, however, Faqir became so distraught in his quest for God-Realization that he became hysterical and stopped eating. As Faqir recollects: Once I wept for twenty-four hours continuously for a glimpse of the Lord. Doctors were called in. They administered medicine to me. At about five o'clock in the morning I saw in a vision the form of Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal [Faqir's eventual guru]. He drew water from a nearby well and helped me take a bath, and then told me his address in Lahore. This experience convinced me that God had incarnated Himself in the form of Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal. [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 22. *]

Faqir's experience convinced him that Shiv Brat Lal was an incarnation of the Lord. After ten months of correspondence, Faqir received initiation from his preceptor into the Radhasoami faith in 1905. [*NOTE: For more on the Radhasoami tradition, see Radha Swami Teachings by Lekh Raj Puri (Beas: Radha Soami Foundation, 1967). *] It was not until the end of World War One, though, that Faqir received his first glimpse of enlightenment. For prior to this time (1919), Faqir accepted whatever inner sights and sounds he beheld in meditation as true and objective. The turning point came after a battle in Hamidia in Iraq. Working as an inspector for the railway station, Faqir and his group came under heavy enemy attack. Fearing for his life, Faqir prayed internally for help from his guru, Shiv Brat Lal. Almost miraculously, Shiv Brat Lal appeared to Faqir in his inner vision. As Faqir recalls:

I too was shaken with the fear of death. In this very moment of fear, the Holy Form of Hazur Data Dayal Ji appeared before me and said, "Faqir, worry not, the enemy has not come to attack but to take away their dead. Let them do that. Don't waste your ammunition." I sent for the Subedar Major and told him about the appearance of my Guru and his directions concerning the enemy. The Subedar Major followed the directions of my Guru. The rebel Jawans came and carried away their dead without attacking our positions. By six o'clock in the morning, our airplanes came and they dropped the necessary supplies. Our fears vanished. We gained courage. We were safe. [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 26. Also see Lane's "The Himalayan Connection" ( Journal of Humanistic Psychology , Fall 1984) for more on the psychological implications of Faqir's visionary experiences. *]

Though Faqir was overjoyed by this miracle, he did not appreciate its full import until some three months later when he realized that it was a projection of his own mind. When Faqir asked Shiv Brat Lal about his appearance, the guru said that he knew nothing whatsoever about it. Moreover, around the time Faqir saw the miraculous form of his guru, Faqir's friends were also in danger and prayed to God. But instead of Shiv Brat Lal appearing to them, Faqir Chand's radiant form manifested and saved their lives. When Faqir was informed about this incident he was "wonder struck":

After about three months, the fighting came to an end and the Jawans retired to their barracks. I returned to Bagdad, where there were many satsangis. When they learned of my arrival, they all came together to see me. It was all very unexpected and a surprising scene for me. I asked them, "Our Guru Maharaj is at Lahore. I am not your Guru. Why do you worship me?" They replied in unison, "On the battle field we were in danger. Death lurked over our heads. You appeared before us in those moments of danger and gave us direction for our safety. We followed your instructions and thus were saved." I was wonder struck by this surprising explanation of theirs. I had no knowledge of their trouble. I, myself, being in danger those days of combat, had not even remembered them. [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 26. It should be pointed out that just prior to leaving to Iraq, Shiv Brat Lal informed Faqir that the ultimate guru was within one's self, nowhere on the outside. In fact, during this meeting, Shiv Brat Lal appointed Faqir as his spiritual successor, blessing his disciple with the following words: "Faqir, you are yourself the Supreme Master of your time. Start delivering spiritual discourses to the seekers and initiate them into the path of Sant Mat. In due course of time, your own satsangis [followers] will prove to be your "True Guru," and it is through your experiences with them that the desired secret of Sant Mat will be revealed to you." [Op. cit., page 25.] *]

Thus, it was through a series of remarkable events that Faqir began to question the authenticity of his inner visions. Instead of accepting whatever appeared to him during his voyages out of the body Faqir doubted them and attempted to find the source from which all such visions arise. Faqir's adventures began to dovetail at this point with the underlying philosophy of the Bardo Thotrol : "That all phenomena are transitory, are illusionary, are unreal, and non-existent save in the sangsaric mind perceiving them. . . That in reality there are no such beings anywhere as gods, or demons, or spirits, or sentient creatures--all alike being phenomena dependent upon a cause. . . That this cause is a yearning or a thirsting after sensation, after the unstable sangsaric existence." [*NOTE: Evans-Wentz, op. cit., page 66 *]

Eventually, Faqir dismissed his visionary encounters as nothing but subtle obstructions of maya. It was at this point that Faqir's meditation took a new turn: instead of enjoying the bliss of inner sights and sounds, Faqir turned his attention to the source from which these manifestations arose. And in so doing, Faqir no longer became attracted to visions of Krishna, Rama, or even his guru, Shiv Brat Lal. Comments Faqir:

O'Dayal's mother, whom you see within and whom you love within is your own creation, your own child. You, yourself, create the image of Shiv Brat Lal in your center of Trikuti, while other devotees create ideals such as Krishna, Rama, or other Gods at the same center and enjoy their vision. Man is basically ignorant about the reality. Mother Bhagyawati is not a lonely example. I too suffered many hardships due to his very ignorance. [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 48. *]

Faqir's insights, interestingly, tally with Book One of the Tibetan Book of the Dead . As Evans-Wentz comments: These Deities [manifestations of various gods and goddess in the intermediate plane] are in ourselves. They are not something apart from us. . . In this esoteric sense, the Lotus Order of Deities represent the deified principles of the vocal functions of ourselves. . . . [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 85. *]

In this new chapter in Faqir's spiritual quest, he began to develop a dispassion for anything which arose in his meditation--be it delightful or wrathful. Instead Faqir began to query, "Who is it that sees the light? Who is it that hears the sound?" In other words, what is it that experiences this world and worlds beyond it? No doubt, Faqir reasoned, it is consciousness. But what is that ? wondered Faqir. The answer would haunt Faqir for the rest of his life, for he realized that no matter what spiritual practices he may do he would never know. It was simply incomprehensible, a mystery without limitation. To Faqir the haunting aspect about this discovery was that no human being (not even avatars, saints, or gurus), he surmised, could possibly know. Indeed, it was this very unknowability which constituted man's enlightenment, or so Faqir intuited. Argues Faqir:

I do not proclaim that whatever I say is correct or final. Whatever I say is the conclusion of my experience of life. Nature is unfathomable. No one has known it . A small germ in a body cannot know the whole body. Similarly (a) human being is like a small germ in a vast Creation. How can he claim to have known the entire creation? Those who say that they have known are wrong. No one can describe or even know the entire creation. Up to a certain extent to which man's mind has access, one can say something. But nobody can tell about the entire universe. It is indescribable .

Paradoxically buoyed by this intuition, Faqir began to immerse himself more and more into the clear void light, forgetting himself and his quest in the process. Although Faqir's extraordinary excursions took place while he was still alive, and not in a near-death state, his experiences reinforce the general philosophy of the Bardo Thotrol about liberation. O Son of noble family, (name), listen. Now the pure luminosity of the dharmata is shining before you; recognize it. O son of noble family, at this moment your state of mind is by nature pure emptiness, it does not possess any nature whatever, neither substance or quality such as colour, but it is pure emptiness; this is the dharmata. . . This mind of yours is inseparable luminosity and emptiness in the form of a great mass of light, it has no birth or death, therefore it is the Buddha of Immortal Light. To recognize this is all that is necessary. [*NOTE: I am using Freemantle's and Trungpa's translation here, op. cit., page 37. *]

What exactly this emptiness or luminosity is cannot, by definition, be described. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead the emphasis is on recognizing one's true nature, that which is no-thing in particular but rather the field in which all things arise--itself being visionless, though producing visions; itself being structureless, though exhibiting structure; itself being non-existent, though producing existence. The clear void light is absolutely paradoxical, since the "I" cannot grasp it, nor can the mind by its subject/object dualism conceive it. Ken Wilber, a well regarded transpersonal theorist and practicing Zen Buddhist, describes it this way: The Absolute is both the highest state of being and the ground of being; it both the goal of evolution and the ground of evolution, the highest stage of development and the reality or suchness of all stages of development; the highest of all conditions and the Condition of all conditions; the highest rung in the ladder and the wood out of which the ladder is made. Anything less than that paradox generates either pantheistic reductionism, on the one hand, or wild and radical transcendentalism on the other. . . . [*NOTE: Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye (New York: Doubleday, 1983), page 293. *]

Thus Faqir, following his Tibetan counterparts, eschewed even the pure light and sound which was beyond form, and attached himself to no-thing, allowing himself, as he so astutely put it, to "hang on the gallows." But in so doing, Faqir broke with Radhasoami tradition, which advocates surat shabd yoga (lit., "uniting the soul with the divine inner sound"), and eventually became regarded as a "heretic." [*NOTE: A number of Radhasoami gurus dismissed Faqir Chand's revelations about truth as erroneous because they considered the Shabd (divine sound) to be the highest truth. One guru named Thakar Singh claimed that Faqir Chand was "crazy"; another alleged that he had gone senile due to old age. If I may interject a personal note here, I find it ironic that someone like Faqir would be branded crazy, heretical, or senile because he says that inner visions are projections of one's own mind; if anything, such a stance is the sign of a clearly rational and healthy mind. But, as Lane points out in his recent study The Politics of Guru Successorship, gurus have a vested interest in preserving their territory; Faqir Chand, regardless of age, was obviously a a threat to orthodox Radhasoami doctrines. *] Near the end of his life, Faqir grew closer to the philosophical principles of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana, as outlined in the Bardo Thotrol . Indeed, if one were only to look at his later writings, one would come away with the impression that Faqir came from a lineage of Tibetan lamas. The following passage is particularly relevant in this regard: O' Faqir these satsangis have taught you the method of hanging at the gallows. Only this experience of the manifestation of my form at different places, of which I am never aware, has changed my life. . . My experiences prove that Yogi, Meditator, Guru, Disciple and even the aspirant of salvation are in bondage. . . These people who create my form with their mental forces to fulfill their worldly desires are not interested to know the Truth. They do not hang themselves on the gallows, because they depend on the support of my Form. Whereas to a man on the gallows there is no support. This is the highest stage. [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 50. *]

It is precisely this letting go--both of the objects which entice the mind and the mind itself--which constitutes the final meditation in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. When this is done, no rebirth is possible, since there is no one left to reap experiences. But what happens to those who cannot let go into the clear void light? What is their plight? According to the Bardo Thotrol , such beings have a series of lesser options, whereby they can take new births in higher or lower dimensions of awareness. Regions upon regions exist where departed beings are enjoying the fruits of their karmic actions. Their fall, so to say, from the empty luminosity is due to one simple, but devastating mistake: they took the apparitions, the lights, the colors, the sounds, and the sensations of the intermediate plane to be real, and not as projections of their own self-created karma. In a phrase, they bought the dream as reality and were thus duped. Concerning these beings, the Tibetan Book of the Dead says: O son of noble family, if you do not recognize them [the various lights and apparitions] as your projections, whatever meditation practice you have done during your life, you have not met with this teaching, the coloured light will frighten you, the sounds will bewilder you and the rays of light will terrify you. If you do not understand this essential point of the teachings you will not the recognize the sounds, lights and rays, and so you will wander in samsara. [*NOTE: Freemantle el al, op. cit., page 41. *]

Faqir Chand also reiterates the teachings of the Bardo Thotrol on this issue of karmic propensities (the principle that karma sways one away from the clear void light at death, if one is not attached beforehand in the empty luminosity). Faqir's frank autobiographical admissions reveal that even a sage as steeped in meditation as he could occasionally fall from the truth and get caught in the whirlpool of attachment. For instance, when Faqir Chand went to sleep he usually attached himself to the light and sound within, but occasionally would get caught up with dreams, falsely believing that he was seeing his father, his son, his wife, trains, and so on. As Faqir points out: This night I had a dream in which I saw running trains. An accident occurred; I carried my luggage; my father (whom I was afraid of) met me ahead. Then I met my mother; my first wife was also sitting there. I inquired from my wife, "What about your wounded leg? Is your leg now alright? Are you not my wife?" Meanwhile I awoke and attuned my Self to the Shabd (Inner Sound Current). . . All these deeds, thoughts and feelings where selfish motives are involved shall positively have their reaction upon the individual concerned, either in the waking state or in sleep. Why do I say so? This is my experience. Ever since the establishment of Manavta Mandir I have never dreamed about it. Why? Because my Self is neither attached to Mandir nor to any of you. But why do my father, mother, wife and railway trains appear time and again in my dreams? Because my Self was attached to them. [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 45. *]

Faqir's observation of what occurs in the dream state also holds true for what happens in the intermediate plane after death, since both involve the same fundamental rule: attachment creates repetition and thus the cycle of samsara continues. Liberation, both in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and in The Unknowing Sage , is non-attachment to anything or anyone. Only then can the bubble or knot of self-existence be undone.

When Faqir Chand was asked what would happen to him after death, he frankly remarked, "I don't know." When asked to elaborate, he proceeded to give a gist of his entire philosophy of life; not surprisingly, as I have attempted to point out in this paper, Faqir's outlook echoes almost point by point The Tibetan Book of the Dead : So what I have understood about Nam is that it is the true knowledge of the feelings, visions, and images that are seen within. This knowledge is that all the creations of the waking, dreaming and deep sleep modes of consciousness are nothing but samskaras (impressions which are in truth unreal) that are produced by the mind. What to speak about others, even I am not aware of my own Self (in dreams). Who knows what may happen to me at the time of death? I may enter the state of unconsciousness, enter the state of dreams and see railway trains. . . How can I make a claim about my attainment of the Ultimate? The truth is that I know nothing. [*NOTE: Op. cit., page 47. *]

Evans-Wentz, writing some forty years earlier than Faqir, makes the following observation concerning the Bardo Thotrol : It is not necessary to suppose that all the dead in the Intermediate State experience the same phenomena, any more than all the living do in the human world, or in dreams. . . As a man is taught, so he believes. . . . [*NOTE: Evans-Wentz, op. cit., page 33. *]

In the end, Faqir's death was an untypical one. In April of 1981 he installed his spiritual successor, Dr. I.C. Sharma, at Manavta Mandir, Hoshiarpur, and then proceeded to fly to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States to conduct his fifth world tour. He was ninety-five years old. But just prior to departing from the Delhi airport, Faqir was asked in a tape-recorded meeting by a long-time friend and devotee when he would be coming back. Faqir, in an unusually prophetic reply, responded: "When I come back, it will be in black box." And so it was. Several weeks later in a Pittsburgh hospital Faqir after undergoing a cardiac arrest and suffering in a coma for several days died. [*NOTE: For more on Faqir's death, please refer to I.C. Sharma's Hindi biography of Faqir Chand entitled Sidha Satpurusha Faqir Baba . *] Days later his body was sent back to India in a casket for final cremation rights.

One can only wonder if the unknowing sage melted into the empty luminosity or into the dream world of running trains.

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