In this interview, Qapel talks about the part the Western Mysteries played in his own path and how his teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche, employed these teachings. He also discusses the similarities and differences between the Western and Eastern esoteric teachings, and how practitioners can leverage the Western mystical tradition as a path unto itself or as a way to complement Eastern practices. 

Today’s interview provides context for the upcoming Western Mysteries retreats: Tarot & Western Archetypes and The Hero’s Journey. You can learn more about these retreats, and learn how to attend in person or virtually at planetdharma.com/2022.

Podcast Transcription:

CL: Welcome to  Dharma If you Dare.  I’m Christopher Lawley, Planet Dharma team member and producer of the podcast.  Since Qapel and Sensei are leading two retreats later in the year from the Western Mysteries tradition, the first being Tarot and Western archetypes and the second being the Hero’s Journey, I thought it would be helpful to give Qapel a call and get some background and context for the practices. In our conversation, Qapel talks about the part the Western practices played in his own path and how his teacher, Namgyal Rinpoche, employed these teachings. He also discusses the similarities and differences between the Western and Eastern esoteric teachings and how practitioners can leverage the Western mystical tradition as a path unto itself or as a way to complement Eastern practices.  You can learn more about the Tarot retreat and learn how to attend in person or virtually at www. planetdharma.com/tarot.

And now here’s the interview. 

CL: Well, thanks for being here today. 

Qapel: My pleasure. 

C:  Great to see you. 

Qapel: Good to see you.  

CL: So I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about how the Western Mysteries were introduced to you and what place they played in your practice. 

Qapel: Yes, definitely.  I think I need to start a little further back though with the idea that awakening is universal teaching and so nobody’s got ownership on the awakening principle.  Every method out there, Buddhist, Christian, whatever shamanistic, it’s climbing up the mountain from a different slope, different angle.  So as you’re going up the mountain, the view is way different, the methodology is different, and everything seems different. But when you get to the top of the mountain, insofar as you get to the top of the mountain, then the view is the same fundamentally. However different methods are more facile or more usable or easier to use for me than others.

And so the two methods that I really used, mostly, are Buddhist  – because their map and their route up the mountain is so incredibly clear and straightforward, and the Western Mysteries, which is a bit more rocky… I suppose there are a few trees and stumps you’ve got to go around but equally effective…  and you get a view from that side that you don’t get going up the Buddhist side.  You can extend that to the other traditions: Shamanistic is closer to Buddhism and to the Western Mysteries than it is to religion. So in a way, Buddhism has an exoteric and an esoteric teaching that it’s very clear about.  Christianity has an exoteric and esoteric tradition as well and the exoteric tradition is the Church, whichever church you happen to belong to. But the esoteric tradition is the Western Mysteries and typically that’s been kind of shunned or scorned or considered weird. 

And its partners over in Islam is Islam and Sufism.  So Islam is the orthodox exterior kind of path and then Sufism is the mystical inner path.  So the Western Mysteries is the mystical or esoteric side of the Christian tradition coming out of, as we know, Judaism and Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. So that’s kind of a context. 

So when I was a young man, I was interested in Buddhism, very much, did a lot of reading.  I read a lot about Hinduism, Baba Ram Dass was a big influence on me in the early days and the Western Mysteries also because I was into the Tarot and Kabbalah, which comes out of the Jewish tradition. And so the thing that was interesting to me is, the archetypes of the West are much different than the archetypes of the East. The archetypes of the East are more impersonal, they’re more trans-personal. Whereas the archetypes of the West seem much more personal to us, that much closer to who we are as people.

So, for instance, in tantric Buddhism, you have Yamantaka that has nine heads, nine phases, 16 arms, 32 legs and looks like a bull.  So, you know, that’s a bit hard to relate to from a Western point of view.  Whereas the Magician looks like a magician and the High Priestess looks like a high priestess and the Hermit looks like a hermit. These are things we can relate to immediately.  What I liked about the Eastern tradition is that it had a practice. The practice was very clear and it had a ritual and a routine, and there’s something you could do, as an ongoing study, as a discipline that involves your body and your emotions and meditation. The Western tradition is more understanding and more insight. So there’s not a lot of practice to be done other than study in the Western Mysteries until you really join the lodge and get involved in the workings of the lodge.  And I mean an inner lodge, not an outer lodge, where you  actually work through the archetypes.  But typically for instance in Tibetan Buddhism, you might do 100,000 Tara meditations.  So by the end of the time you’ve done 100,000 Tara meditations, just meditating on Tara, that’s all you’re doing.  By the end of 100,000, you’ve got a really good sense of what that Tara vibration is. You’ve embodied that vibration. But there are no 100,000 Magicians, there are no 100,000 Towers, and there are no 100,000 Stars. So, later in my life, I applied mantras to the Western archetypes, which I then found was very helpful in terms of getting more/stronger contact with that vibe. So that’s kind of the theory of it.  And then when I met my teacher, who was in the Western Mysteries and was also a Buddhist monk and also in all three schools of the Buddhist tradition: Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana.  I asked him, I said: “Well Sir, I’ve been told that you can either do the Eastern tradition, Buddhism or you can do the Western tradition, Kabbalah, but you can’t do them both. You have to choose”. And his response was, ”Well, it depends on the student. If the student has an aptitude and interest and the capacity to work in both traditions simultaneously, then fine and if they don’t, then perhaps just working in one tradition is better”.  So if you have the interest and you’re willing to do the work, then yes, you can do both traditions.  So that’s exactly what happened. In fact, my first course with my teacher, who was a Buddhist monk (Vajrayana principally in the latter part of his life) was a Movement of the Mandala workshop, which is in fact kind of the inner workings of the lodge using exercises, meditations, movement, sound, music, dance, exercises that involve the body and many people, many people involved –  as my first course. So that was exciting because it was active, it was engaged. It was…. we did it together. There were 30 people and there was a theater, basically theater in a way. Whereas in the East you kind of sit on your butt and meditate and you’re kind of a solitary individual in the cave.  You might have group meditations where people are chanting and so on, but each person is sitting on their own cushion chanting, there’s not a lot of interaction.  The most you see is in, say the Tibetan dances when they do the Tibetan deity dances. But that’s more for the public than it is a participatory program of meditation for the performers.  Whereas, in the Western mysteries, you’re part of it. It’s happening to you, you’re happening with other people happening to them and you’re doing it together. So very powerful, very dynamic. 

CL: So when you were incorporating Western Mysteries practices into your path, were those things that Rinpoche brought to you and suggested, or did he allow your energy to guide and then meet you with the practices when you showed up in a particular way? 

Qapel: I think that the thing you need to recognize about the Namgyal tradition is (my teacher was Namgyal Rinpoche), it’s eclectic teaching.  It’s the first teaching into a new country and it always brings the teaching into new territory. So for instance when the Namgyal lineage went into Bhutan, they brought Buddhism with them. There wasn’t Buddhism in Bhutan, the Namgyal lineage brought it in. So similarly Namgyal came to the West, was born in the West, right. And he brought it into North America along with Trungpa, but Trungpa brought it in pretty much exclusively.  Although he, of course, over time became much, much, much more eclectic he kind of adapted to the Western culture, but he came, kind of,  as a Tibetan Buddhist monk initially.  Anyway, Namgyal came in as a white Westerner, right? He had a Western degree. He had been in music school, he had been in the Communist Party, and out of it, he was a writer and a musician and so he had a very eclectic background and he taught that way. He taught science, he taught dharma from science, from the arts across the spectrum.  (Trungpa did too eventually).  And so there was no clear definition or clear separation between the two principles. When he would give a talk, he might be talking about Tarot in one breath and then the Star, which is what Tara means, curiously enough, the Star. He might be talking about the Star card in the Kabbalah and the Tarot in the next sentence. So there was always the shifting ground between Western and Eastern points of reference, different metaphors from both the East, from China and then from Europe. So it was always eclectic.  There was no place where you could hang your hat and say okay we’re doing….. I mean he would do strict Buddhist teachings like the meditation on the Satipatthana –  the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  And he might do a whole course on Karma, Womb and Transcendence which is really Western in its scope, right? But if you read the book, there are all sorts of references to Buddhism and the East. So it was depending on what course he did or what retreat he did. Right? Yes, the retreats were mostly Buddhist because the Buddhist tradition is meditative, but the courses… when he did a course and it wasn’t just sitting meditation, then it got way more Western in approach.  He had people do papers on subjects, pick a subject and do a paper on it. Somebody did a paper on Socrates for instance. So mixed bag as you say. 

CL: Yes, it sounds like the eclecticism really appealed to you as a student. 

Qapel: Yes, very much so. Very much so. I’m born in the West, right? I’m a Westerner, that’s my culture. My parents come from Europe, second generation, but my parents come from the Western tradition. So these are images you grew up with as a kid. You know, you grew up with an idea of a magician.  When you were five you were introduced to the concept of a hermit, especially if you lived in a big city or someplace and you’d see somebody in robes or you know, a Catholic priest or something. This was around you when you were learning to talk. So these metaphors are more immediate. They’re more visceral for you because that’s where you’re born, that’s where you’re raised – now if you get into previous lifetimes etcetera the game gets much bigger and much broader – but at least in this one.

So Namgyal used to say the eastern tradition, the eastern initiation, say in the Vajrayana school of deity practice are quite easy for us to get.  I mean a Tibetan in 100 years ago would have to walk for maybe a month to a temple or to a town to get  an initiation and he might only, she might only get one or two in their lifetime.  And we roll in as Westerners and to the Tibetans and we get like 10 a week or something and it’s like they’re quite more easily available to us than they were to the Tibetans, pre-20th century anyway.

 But in the Western tradition, the initiations are much more closely held.  For instance, the outer teaching is quite accessible you: can get a book on the Tarot anywhere, you can get a book on the Rosicrucians anywhere, and you know any bookstore will have a broad spectrum of such things.  But to get the actual initiation process, which is usually done with a master in a lodge, that’s a different ball game.  And now in the West, the Western lodges are mostly exoteric, they’ve become men’s clubs or service organizations, and they don’t do the inner lodge work anymore. There are exceptions but hard to find and they’re not going to, and they’re not going to advertise!  So I was very fortunate to be able to do the Movement of the Tarot, if you want to call it that or Movement of the Mandala, the actual embodiment exercises/ engagements with my teacher and 29, 30 other people, the first thing I did with him. So that was great. 

CL: So when we speak about the Western mysteries, what body of work are we actually talking about then? 

Qapel: Well, there’s the philosophy, you know, and then there’s… and then there are the exercises and the practices –  a little harder to find. I think probably the nearest approach we get is something called the Hero’s Journey, which many different people have done in many different forms,  but typically it’s kind of done as a kind of therapy model or as a kind of conceptual understanding of the program. But if you do the Hero’s Journey with a viable group and a viable teacher it can be hugely transformative for people. But it’s done through the Western archetypes, it’s not done through the Eastern archetypes.  So there’s a hero and there’s a devil, right? And of course, you can interpret that externally.  Oh the devil is a, you know, a real person or something or you know, or the hero is a real person. But fundamentally you’re looking to the archetype: what is the hero in you and where is the devil in you? And how do you marry these two? That’s the alchemical marriage.  So whether you’re East or West, the teaching is done through metaphor, paradox, and parable, and the minute you try to make it literal, you kind of ‘burned the pizza’! –  you might still be able to eat it, but it’s not the same meal. 

So for instance if you wanted to do a marriage in the sense of wedding the Understandings, I really recommend you read a book called The Cave and the Light by a guy named Arthur Herman. The Cave and the Light –  Plato versus Aristotle and the struggle for the soul of Western civilization. That will give you the entire outer history of the West in terms of philosophy and understanding  how we got to be who we are here.

And then if you can join that with the Tarot or the Kabbalah or the Western Mystery exercises, then you have the two sides, you know, kind of Plato and Aristotle in a way . But what they don’t have in the West, so much, is a clear understanding of the lack of a permanent self, no inherent self, and emptiness. So then you go over to the East and you get the archetypes which does what the Tarot does, right.  And you have the Buddhist teaching which is philosophically the kind of balancer to Western philosophy. But Western philosophy never really questions the idea of an inherent self, and an understanding of emptiness or spaciousness – which separates the two traditions distinctly. So if you put those things together, you have a full well-rounded kind of history of humanity both materially and spiritually, which is why I do it.

CL: So for Planet Dharma, it’s still an integral part of how you approach the path for that reason and not simply for variety. 

Qapel: Oh no, the Western work is as effective for a practitioner as the Eastern is, but the practice for the Westerner is harder to wrap yourself around because the practice isn’t really super defined, you’ve got to sort of do it yourself, and as we know, when we go back to work from our spiritual course we tend to get into habit. So if you went to work and you decide “okay today I’m the Magician” and you went through your work day trying to understand and inculcate the principles that you learned about the Magician and how it works, and its function, and its relationship to the other 21 major arcana, then they could be an effective practice, but there’s nothing to bite your teeth into.

Whereas if you go to work and you do Chenrezi mantras: Om mani padme hum  –  compassion, you can kind of run that as a background through most of your day without much effort.  A little harder to apply the Magician in your day. Doable.

CL: And so in terms of that, when I think of the Tarot, most of what I see out there is about using it as a divination tool and I’m aware that that is not what….  I mean, one of the things that when I talk to people about why I’m so drawn to this lineage, is that it is always about how to integrate and to transform and nothing is superficial.  And I was wondering who would be kind of a good fit for somebody who might have some exposure to things like the Tarot in that way and in divination too, who might be a candidate to take it deeper.

Qapel: Well, again, whether you’re East or West, what determines your progress on the path of awakening is your motivation and your aspiration. So let’s take an example of astrology.  98% of people who use astrology, basically use it to map their personality, their strengths and their weaknesses and whether they get along with this guy or this woman and so on. Right. It’s all about ‘me’ and ‘my life’ and how it affects ‘me’ and how I can use it to affect myself or others and so on.  So ‘me, me, me and more, me’.  And then you have AstroDharma. AstroDharma is astrology applied to transpersonal, to the awakening principle. So now astrology doesn’t become a personal tool per se. It becomes a way of using the astrological principles to understand the nature of the patterning of the psyche.

It moves it to the transpersonal and so same too in the East, you know have you have all sorts of people in India or in the Himalayas churning out mantras endlessly without any idea what they’re doing. It’s kind of just wrote. So it’s not the tool, it’s the person using it. So the same thing with Tarot.  You can use Tarot for divination, and insofar as you have a decent reader of the cards, that can be useful at a practical, relative world kind of level. But you know, that’s the same thing with the I Ching, right? You throw the yarrow stalks and read the I Ching for the same reason. You can use it as a personal divination or directional tool, right, or you can study the I Ching as The Book of Changes. You can study the I Ching as an understanding of the cosmos. What’s your motivation? What’s your aspiration? And what kind of eyes are you using to look at it? Is it about transcendence?  Or is it about the ego and the personality? And so you get both.

CL: And if somebody was interested in exploring these traditions, the Western Mystery traditions, what would be a good starting point for someone? 

Qapel: Well, I’d start reading –  that would be number one and I’d start studying, that’s reading,  then I would find somebody who knows something about it and has some experience with it and start from there and then follow your nose. If your interest is superficial and thin then your contact with who you find and who might help and be of service will probably be thin,  and if you have a deeper, stronger interest then you’ll find a deeper, stronger connection to somebody or something that does it more deeply.

So again, it comes back to the same answer really. Your path is determined by your aspiration and your motivation as a starting point, but it’s completed by your will. So how strongly determined are you to actually do the work? And it is work. Whether you do the Western Mysteries or you do the Buddhist path or Christian path or Hindu path or Shaman path. It’s work.  Because the ego is a creature of habit and wants to stay comfortable and it’s that very nature of staying comfortable and habit that keeps people asleep. Nothing wrong with your habits, but it doesn’t wake you up. And the whole point of spiritual teachings is to wake you up. I can’t remember who said “The dreamer must awake”… was that Dune?  And Socrates, I think who said “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.”  So it starts with Socrates in a way in the West.  Like, if you’re not examining the nature of consciousness, that’s a metaphor for your life, then what are you doing? Watching the hockey game? I like hockey games, but I’m not going to watch them all the time. I’ve got other stuff to do. 

CL: Well, thanks very much. I appreciate you shedding some more light on this topic. Looking forward to the retreat.

Qapel: You’re welcome. All right, thank you very much, Chris, thanks for having me and we’ll talk to you soon. 

May all beings be well and happy.

CL: We hope you enjoyed this episode. Please rate and review Dharma if You Dare on your favorite podcast app to help more people find and benefit from these teachings. And don’t forget to subscribe to get episodes and bonus content sent directly to your device. As mentioned this summer at Clear Sky Center and virtually for those unable to travel, Qapel and Sensei will be leading a retreat on the Tarot and Western archetypes.  As you can tell from the interview, this practice is part of a powerful and concise path of liberation that draws on our own life experiences as Westerners and our native intelligence to help unfold deeper wisdom and understanding of our mystical life.

Later in the fall, Qapel and Sensei will be in Europe to lead an in-person interactive retreat on the Hero’s Journey, a powerful mythical journey experience integrating Eastern and Western traditions.  Accepting the challenge of the Hero’s Journey will leave you with a healthier strengthened ego, one more fully integrated with the shadow and thus more energetic and less susceptible to stress.  

Learn more about these retreats by visiting www.planetdharma.com/2022. 

See you next time and may all our efforts benefit all beings