With a strong teaching focus on practical healing meditations, Theodore Tsaousidis is one of the most unique Buddhist teachers we’ve interviewed. Although he teaches in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition — invited by his guru — he also coaches mindfulness meditation and studies with a Zen master. Moreover, he strengthens his teachings by embracing world healing traditions and is influenced by his strong roots in rural Greek shamanism. He was immersed in traditional village healing from a young age in Greece, something of a family tradition.
This fascinating teacher embraces all three paths. His main focus is on healing practices — practical rather than theoretical — in the belief they support and enhance each other without contradictions.
Note: Beginning on March 23, teacher Theodore Tsaousidis will give a series of seven weekly Thursday lectures on Lamrim, The Stages on the Path to Enlightenment (in the Toronto area) hosted by Gaden Choling Toronto and Medicine Buddha Toronto. Details on the event here>>
BW: If someone is going to label you as a teacher, are they going to come to you for teachings on Buddhism, or shamanism, or Mindfulness meditation?
I appreciate it might seem confusing. For me, I don’t see any separation. They’re all the same thing. Of course, most often you choose one over the other depending on your disposition and need.
The labels, calling something shamanism or Buddhism, really is just to describe the technique. The aim is the same. I’m not saying the goal of shamanism is Enlightenment, but both methods can be said to be of help to connect with your essence. Both can be said to help you realize your precious, tender heart. Both can be said to help you to the one universal truth. This truth must be a direct experience, or you can say an undistorted view of the Universe which is innate in all beings. We just need to connect with that.
Buddha taught that at the heart, at the core, your true nature is compassion. The Buddha’s teaching is about discovering this truth.
BW: Why do you say Shamanism Without Beliefs? (Refers to a series of lectures)
If you have rigid beliefs about Shamanism, you aren’t practicing shamanism. The rigidity of the beliefs will move that into the realm of a religion, a set of ideas. What does that have to do with reality or with your experience? Beliefs actually distorts reality. You will be avoiding your experience and looking at a contrived narrative that has come from someone else’s mind — which can be a distorted view — or you can say a fantasy. So if you want to have beliefs that’s okay, but you have to set them down if you are going to try to connect and work with Shamanistic techniques. And if you are willing to do this then you will have a great opportunity to demonstrate courage. The former does not require particular courage — the latter great courage.
BW: The event you hosted last year with Venerable Zasep Rinpoche in Owen Sound juxtapositions La Gug Soul Retrieval, which is a Tibetan Buddhist practice, with shamanism. Can you talk about that?
Well, La Gug life force retrieval is shamanism! In a way, you could say La Gug is the apex of all healing and predates Buddhism in Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism has skillfully retained this practice in its healing modalities.
One of the geniuses of Buddhism is skillful means. If you look at Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Korea, China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, United States — and some people are going to get upset when I say this — but they’ve adapted Buddhism to suit their cultural propensity.
If you have rigid beliefs this will be confusing. But this actually is skillful means, this is the genius of Buddhism. You could say that Vajrayana Buddhism emphasizes things that the Theravadan’s don’t. And Zen emphasizes something else.
In the Himalayas, Tibet and Mongolia, people paid a lot of attention to the natural world. Maybe they had to, or they wouldn’t have survived. It was cold. It was wild. They still hold nature as part of their cultural identity. They still use nature as a way to survive, whether it’s collecting herbs for healing or relating to animals. Shamanism is a strong influence that remained in Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism. Since it preceeds Buddhism by tens of thousands of years this La Gug life-force retrieval system is obviously still a vital part of that tradition.
BW: Is there a danger of trying to focus on more than one path?
When people look at my work — and my Zen Master is really concerned about this which I understand — it can seem confusing.
It’s important to practice what works for you. Whether it is Shamanism, Zen meditation, Tantric Buddhism, Tai Chi,etcetera, doing all these practices at once would be confusing or as Rinpoche says, a mish mash.
You never really get to know or understand any of them. If one is jumping around from this practice to that practice, for one thing they never will be able to go deep in the work, and underneath this mish mash might be a way to create some kind of a narrative instead of seeking the medicine that is needed for the condition at hand. I’m very careful not to mix different paths because I don’t think it’s very helpful, especially in the beginning. First you need to construct a strong foundation and obviously that starts from practicing awareness through meditation. That’s why I trained in Zen Buddhism for many years before taking on the responsibility of teaching the healing practices that I was entrusted with early on.
Zasep Rinpoche says it’s like digging a well. You dig for two feet and if there’s no water you go somewhere else and you keep digging until there are holes everywhere, but you never go deep enough to find water. You try Zen meditation. Then you try shamanism. Or try art therapy. Or you try Christian mysticism or something like that. But you never dig the hole deep enough.
The way I see these three paths is like three different medicines, depending on what your ailment is, one of these medicines may help you. And obviously meditation is a vital foundation no matter what the element.
BW: I’ve noticed every event you help organize or teach seems to be mostly focused on well-being and healing?
Basically, yes. The first thing my master advised me to do was to work with students who are enduring physical pain.
You’re going to be surprised right now, but I don’t believe there’s such a thing as healing. I don’t think you can go to anyone in the world and they can heal you. That’s a strange thing to say, because my work is about healing. You have a person, you sit them down, you do some things to them, you move some energies, add some energies, do some purification and now — high fives — you’re all good. Yes, there can be healing that way. There can even be total absence of the element.
But, from a shamanistic perspective, that’s not how lasting healing works. If there is no shift in your body, in your relationship to your body or the universe, healing then is only temporary, receiving energy from someone is only temporary.
To heal, you need to be able to cultivate and draw energy yourself. Otherwise the healing is temporary. And of course Shamanism is all about finding and cultivating this energy and sustaining it.
BW: What should people expect to come away with from one of your events?
That’s a very good question. Hopefully, you’ll come away with a visceral experience in your body. If you can suspend your ideas, just for a little while in a safe environment, then this method of La Gug can be powerful and profound at a physical level, at a psychological level.
In the practice of La Gug*, you actually see something in your mind’s eye. Energetically, you feel it. And at this point ritual is so important because it helps you to have the external indication that something’s taking place and this is very grounding. So these three things — the energetic/visceral experience, the sensory recognition, and the ritual — help your conventional self, your emotional self, to “get it.” Get it that here something is taking place. The shift has started. If you were healing a trauma from childhood, it signals, “it’s over.” It’s a signal to let go of the narrative of the past, the pain of the past.
Also, when a great teacher like Rinpoche says, “And now it is gone,” and we put faith and trust into that, it really supports and helps that to happen.
La Gug is so profound, because it has so many different levels, but it works on such a primal level that as long as you have a physical body you will get it. What is so extraordinary about it is the shift of energy. Again, if we are willing to put down our beliefs for a bit we can benefit. We’re multi-layered as people. We need to talk to the body, talk to the emotions, talk to the mind.
With La Gug I’ve seen quite miraculous things take place.
[Editors Note: La Gug is a powerful Tibetan Buddhist healing practice similar in some ways to traditional shamanism and based in part in ancient Tibetan shamanism. In La Gug, the practitioners retrieves lost vital life force, in a way similar to the shaman on a journey to gather lost spirit, except the practitioner relies on Buddhas, Enlightened Beings, for help. This interview occurred shortly after a La Gug retreat organized by Theodore Tsaousidis, taught by Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. More about that event here>>]
BW: You were originally asked to teach by Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche?
When Rinpoche asked me to teach, it took me a couple years to commit. I don’t know if you know, but if a teacher asks you to teach, you have to do it. I think if you refuse to do it, you should leave the teacher. Even in the Zen tradition, if you are asked to teach and you don’t teach, it’s considered very, very bad.
Just to make a long story short, I replied to Rinpoche that I could only teach in areas where I feel comfortable and authentic. I said, ‘What I’m interested in doing is not to turn people into Buddhists — or anything! — but just to help people live authentically. I said to Rinpoche, what I’m interested in is teaching what the person in front of me really needs.
I said, ‘What I’m interested in teaching is Medicine Buddha practices and also practices that involve connecting with people’s innate essence,” which of course is what Shamanism does so well.
Actually, that is what Shamanism is and that is what healing is. I see the Medicine Buddha practice similar to the healing techniques I grew up with.
BW: How long ago was that?
I began teaching in 2008. I’ve been a formal student of Buddhism for thirty-three years. I feel great devotion and gratitude for my traditional training in both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.
Rinpoche, my Tibetan Buddhist teacher, is not a fancy, flamboyant teacher: he’s interested in serious work. He’s interested in transformation. He’s interested in healing. He’s interested in the Dharma. This is why I love him and why I feel very safe with him. He’s taken me into his care — really compassionate.
BW: Originally you studied and practiced Zen?
Yes, I am still a formal student of Zen Buddhism. Zen is a different animal than Vajrayana. If you are to ask me to explain it I can’t. The more I practice it the less I can say about it. That is why I teach mindfulness and not Zen. Teaching Zen is a very precarious endeavour in which I do not have permission to teach thankfully, but I have permission to teach mindfulness for health and healing purposes.
BW: Are both of your teachers — Tibetan Buddhist and Zen — supportive of each other’s lineage and teachings? Are there any issues having two teachers from different Buddhist streams?
Not with me. I keep the practices very clear and separate. I do think that this can be problematic for some students to study both schools. All I know is these practices have affected my life in a very constructive and beneficial way. They have different supportive mechanisms and techniques in helping one to live a skillful life, and of course the ultimate goal, to waken up. I think one of the reasons Rinpoche has confidence in me is he sees the results and benefit of my three decades of devoted Zen training, which it’s main focus, at least in the beginning, is concentration and insight.
After twenty years of Zen training I realized that the actual teaching of the Buddha, particularly as they pertain to the physiological condition of a human being, was important. I didn’t just want to know how to deal with the human condition, I wanted to know what is the human condition, what does it mean to be a whole human being. This was important enough in me that I went searching. Influenced by my upbringing and culture in the Socratic method and because of my background in healing and shamanism, I was drawn to the Tibetan Geluk tradition.
BW: What is your general approach?
I focus on doing practice, methods that help one maintain physical well-being, psychological well-being, and to live skillfully in the world. The foundational power that comes through mindfulness meditation is the first step to reducing harm to self and others. Once one has developed some level of concentration and is able to observe their own mind, then work in Buddhism, Buddhist psychology, and shamanism can be of help.
The deciding factor of how to deepen work depends on the disposition of the student. I look at meditation and mindfulness Buddhism and Shamanism as three different medicines to address pain and suffering. For some, one or the other or all three can be of use. They have to be approached intelligently and skillfully otherwise then they can inadvertently mask the illness instead of uprooting it. I am all for people living stress-free and happy lives, but I am more interested in people having the capacity to navigate both internal and external weather.
BW: Do Zen and Tibetan Mahamudra teach similar things?
You could say, there are ten things to learn. The ten paramitas. Whether you approach them through Zen or Mahamudra (Ed. Note: Tibetan Buddhist Practice) — you approach them the same way.
First of all, you approach it with, “What is this?” Take for instance, Dana (Editor’s Note: generosity). You start by analyzing from a conventional perspective. What does this mean? What’s an example of it? How does it manifest in the world? What’s your relationship with Dana? Then, you analyze it from the ultimate perspective.
[Editor’s Note: The Ten Paramitas (Perfections) are:
Dāna pāramī : generosity, giving of oneself
Sīla pāramī : virtue, morality, proper conduct
Nekkhamma pāramī : renunciation
Paññā pāramī : transcendental wisdom, insight
Viriya pāramī : energy, diligence, vigour, effort
Khanti pāramī : patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
Sacca pāramī : truthfulness, honesty
Adhiṭṭhāna pāramī : determination, resolution
Mettā pāramī : loving-kindness
Upekkhā pāramī : equanimity, serenity]
BW: What’s a definition of a shaman?
If you want to give a definition of shaman, a shaman is someone who uses various means — depending on their capacities and who they are — to see and work in both the conventional and non conventional realities at the same time.
So, from that broad definition, Buddhas transcend the duality of convention and ultimate, and thus can be thought of as shamans. In saying this however, Buddhas can be shamans but shamans are not always Buddhas — depending on the shaman’s capacity as an intermediator. A shaman is an intermediator between the conventional and the ultimate — or someone who moves freely between the ordinary and non-ordinary reality.
To explain the word “conventionally” a bit more. We see with our eyes, hear with our ears. Practice helps us to open up our spirituality by teaching us how to be blind, how to be deaf. We contaminate everything we read, everything we touch, everything we see. If we only use our conventional eyes, we cannot see clearly. We cannot see things for what they really are. Our relationship to these things is therefore contaminated by perception. If you want to use a different word than contaminated, you could say delusion. Or confusion.
BW: Can you give an example?
You could think of it this way. Two people meet for the first time. The one person, in order to impress the other person, presents a certain persona. And the other person responds to what they hear and see. They’re both playing these illusionary roles. Neither of them are revealing their true self, or who they are.
So, when we go on your search for meaning and answers, whether you take on Buddhism or any other contemplative spirituality, you need to put aside your own desires, your own cravings, your own narratives, so that whatever you discover is not contaminated. In other words, if you already have an idea of what it is you want, your discoveries are not authentic.
If we look at shamanism from that perspective, then we can see that the cultural narrative of a particular society, or the particular method — whether someone uses a flute, or a drum or a rattle or dreams or entheogens— are irrelevant. That’s just the vehicle they’re taking to connect to this source.
If we look at shamanism from that perspective, then shamanism is very much valid. If we look at shamanism from a cultural perspective, whether it’s shamanism in the Amazon, Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, and we associate it with those cultures, then we miss the aim of it, the reason for it, the validity of it.
What is your goal? Say it’s harmony and peace. You can reach harmony and peace in many different ways. Shamanism is one method. Shamanism has some unique characteristics. It works differently but the main component in shamanism is that it heals our disconnect from the “spiritual or non-ordinary reality that has come about from trauma and our basic human condition. This disconnect is comparable to starvation.
BW: Why do you say Shamanism: Truth without Beliefs
The purpose is to use Shamanism as a method to engage life rather than to confuse it with all kinds of cultural narratives like how the cosmos came into being.
This is why I can say, Shamanism: Truth without Beliefs. Ultimately, if you work from a shamanistic perspective, if you hold it to any kind of narrative, any kind of belief, then you cannot do this work.
BW: Zen also encourages this openness?
Zen encourages this intimate relationship with your own body and your own mind.
Because we have relied so much on priests and our leaders to supply the narrative — to tell us what to eat, what to drink, when to sleep, when to wake, when to be happy, when to be sad — we’ve lost this personal relationship not only with the outside world, but also with our own body/mind.
BW: How do Buddhism and shamanism compliment each other?
In order to have a pure kind of experience, you have to put down all the labels, Buddha, man, woman, human. I can appreciate how confusing it can be when you talk about Buddhism together with shamanism. The confusion comes from our past rigid ideas about what things are.
In Buddhism we ask “where is this self? Is it in the heart? Is it in the head? The answer is, there is no independent self. ” When managing pain we ask “where is this pain? Can you show me? Where is this headache?” We have a sense of where it is but when we bring our awareness to it, we find it is not fixed but fluid. We are looking to find “a thing” when it cannot be found. In Shamanism, it looks like there is healing of a “self” but what is really being healed is the distorted relationship with the body/mind. This is also the work of Buddhism or any tradition that brings real healing.
How did shamanism come into your life?
I grew up with shamanism in my village. I was sick when I was three months old. I lived in a village with about seven healers, and one extraordinary healer. My mom put some salt in a container and all the healers did prayers and ceremonies, and then it was brought back to me to ingest. That saved my life.
Later, I ended up being trained by my aunt and uncle, who were healers. I spent most of my time as a child learning these practices — and much less time on schoolwork.
At eight years old I was almost killed, nearly beaten to death. I survived by just a thread of consciousness. I was conscious of being out of my body. I was out of my body, and I could see myself being beaten up. Then, I realized, I’m not my body.
At thirteen, I drowned. I had to be resuscitated. I was told I was out for about nineteen minutes. It seemed like an eternity I spent in that near death experience. It was a very profound near death experience. It kept me quiet for the next two years.
Then, at fifteen I had an incident where I was just sitting on the porch of my house, outside, and had a sudden feeling of oneness with the whole universe. After that oneness experience, I became a very happy person.
I am the last of that lineage in my family, passed from my aunt and uncle, the medicines, the ceremonies. We didn’t call it shamanism.
BW: What motivates you to expend all this amazing energy to put together these teaching events?
The only reason I do this, the only reason I am speaking to you right now, is because there are no more places for my heart to break. It’s a totally shattered heart. I do this because I feel I have no choice. I cannot be blind to the extraordinary suffering, not only in the human realm, but the natural realm, and the animals. This is why I refuse to let go of shamanism. I hold onto it because shamanism has great tools to heal the planet. It transcends any “ism” and is available to everyone.
It’s important to contribute to the end of suffering.
NOTE: BEGINNING ON MARCH 23, TEACHER THEODORE TSAOUSIDIS WILL GIVE A SERIES OF SEVEN WEEKLY THURSDAY LECTURES ON LAMRIM, THE STAGES ON THE PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT IN THE TORONTO AREA, HOSTED BY GADEN CHOLING TORONTO AND MEDICINE BUDDHA TORONTO. DETAILS ON THE EVENT HERE>>
Theodore teaches for several organizations. For schedules, please visit: