The Special Role of Oral Transmission in Tantra
Oral transmission and inspiration from spiritual mentors play an even larger role in tantra than they do in sutra practice. This is evident from the structure of the tantric texts themselves and from the indispensable role of requesting inspiration from the lineage masters, one by one, in almost every practice.
In An Illuminating Lamp, the Indian master Chandrakirti explained the six alternative meanings and four levels of textual interpretation outlined in An Anthology of Vajra Deep Awareness. The latter work is one of the Guhyasamaja explanatory tantras for understanding the "vajra-expressions" of the highest class of root tantric texts. Except for The Kalachakra Tantra, the "clear tantra," the language of these texts is purposely obscure and conceals many meanings in each of its words. A vajra-expression may have meanings that are (1) explicit and suggestive of something else, (2) suggested and implicit, (3) metaphorical, and (4) non-metaphorical. Moreover, the language of the expression may be (5) conventional or (6) nonsensical, unconventional terms. Further, the expression may have (1) literal, (2) shared, (3) hidden, and (4) ultimate levels of interpretation.
In An Extensive Explanation of "An Illuminating Lamp," Sherab-senggey, Gelug founder of the Lower Tantric College, explained why the "hidden tantras" encrypt their meanings in this complex fashion. Although many contributing factors need to be present, success on the tantric path hinges on the inspiration and positive energy gained from a healthy relationship with a tantric master. To ensure that disciples build up that relationship, the language of the tantras is purposely obscure. Without relying on their tantric masters for oral transmission, instruction, and inspiration, disciples cannot connect the explanatory tantras with the root texts to derive the inner significance of the tantric practices.
Disciples on the tantra path may gain inspiration from their mentors to activate their Buddha-natures not merely from hearing the words of oral transmissions, but through all their senses. Tantric masters consecrate tiny herbal pills, chinlab, the same word as for inspiration, and give them to disciples to taste and swallow. They do the same with toasted barley dough balls during ceremonies for inspiring them to live long lives dedicated to self-development and to helping others. The disciples' positive attitudes when eating them undoubtedly strengthen their immune systems.
Tantric masters further inspire disciples by touching them on the head either with statues containing relics of lineage figures or with their hands, giving them a "hand-empowerment" (hand-blessing). They also consecrate specially knotted red strings and amulets for disciples to wear around their necks for protection. Touching their heads or giving them talismans is not for the purpose of feeding superstitions or hopes for magic. The intention is to inspire disciples with confidence so that they do not hesitate to use the potentials of their Buddha-natures.
The Nyingma and Kagyu traditions speak of "liberation through hearing, seeing, and being touched." Liberation, here, means gaining inspiration through these sensory experiences to activate one's Buddha-nature. Consequently, spiritual practice becomes especially potent for bringing liberation as quickly as is possible. The Tibetan title of the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead translates literally as Liberation through Hearing [the Words of the Text Recited while] in the Bardo. For disciples to gain liberation through seeing, Nyingma lamas show them special statues of the founder of their lineage, Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. The Karmapas, the highest masters of the Karma Kagyu tradition, perform the black hat ceremony. Disciples gain inspiration for their practices not only by seeing the Karmapa wearing his black hat, which is symbolic of the attainments of the entire lineage, but also by being in the presence of a realized master in total meditative absorption.
Tantric masters also give consecrated herbal pills, long-life dough balls, hand-empowerments, protection cords, and amulets to the general public. They also let the public view the special statues of the lineage founders and attend hat ceremonies. However, because members of the general public lack close relationships with these tantric masters, they do not gain the same depth of inspiration as tantric disciples of these masters receive.
Although all forms of Tibetan Buddhism teach a combined path of sutra and tantra, they all agree that ultimately only the methods of the highest class of tantra can remove the final obstacles preventing enlightenment. Highest tantra includes practices for working with the subtle energy-systems of the body and ways to access the mind's subtlest level, known as clear light. The Nyingma system calls the equivalent level of mind pure awareness (rigpa, rig-pa). For the sake of simplicity, we shall use clear light mind as a general term that also refers to pure awareness.
The salient feature of highest tantra that enables enlightenment is its focus on accessing the individual clear light mind within each person and using it to comprehend voidness. Only this subtlest level of mind can function with the full abilities of a Buddha. Only this level of mind continues into enlightenment and becomes a Buddha's enlightening, fully wise, all-loving mind. Thus, the immediate condition that we need to attain just prior to enlightenment is an activated clear light mind that uninterruptedly sees the void nature of reality or that, in dzogchen terminology, "recognizes its own face."
Although each person's clear light mind naturally exposes itself fully at the time of death, it normally understands nothing at that time. Moreover, clear light mind is extremely difficult to access while we are alive. Although it underlies and accompanies each moment of our experience, it does not function actively while grosser levels of mind are operating. Moments of involuntary violent sucking in of energy, such as the instant before sexual climax, sneezing, or yawning, come close to revealing this subtlest level of mind. However, the explosion of energy the very next instant destroys any possibility of capturing the moment and proceeding in this direction. Like smashing an atom within a mass of matter to release its potentials, accessing and harnessing clear light mind for the realization of voidness requires intense controlled energy.
The experiences during highest tantra empowerments reinforce the potentials of our clear light minds and activate them for making progress. Tantric ceremonies, however, cannot inspire energy on their own. Neither can the complex visualizations or internal yogas of advanced tantra practice. We need qualified tantric masters and healthy, deep relationships with them to bring our potentials fully to life. Only the combination of all these factors can inspire the enormous energy required for accessing, sustaining, and applying our clear light minds.
The Drigung Kagyu fivefold path of mahamudra (great seal) practice indicates this point clearly. The Drigung founder, Drigungpa, explained that the first two features necessary for disciples to realize their clear light minds are generating bodhichitta, and, within that state of mind, imagining themselves as Buddha-figures. Without the third feature, however, a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor, disciples lack the inspiration needed to break through the massive clouds of conceptual thought to uncover their clear light minds.
Because the clear light mind continues from one life to the next and on through enlightenment, its continuum is the actual basis for the various aspects of Buddha-nature. For this reason, the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions consider clear light mind the deepest Buddha-nature. Clear light mind, however, does not merely carry the other aspects of Buddha-nature with its flow like a river carrying barges. Networks of good qualities, positive potentials, and deep awareness, for example, constitute innate features of clear light mind itself. Thus, we may apply to this context Gampopa's explanation that a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor is the condition that activates Buddha-nature as the actual cause for reaching enlightenment. A healthy relationship with a tantric master is the condition for activating and harnessing the clear light mind, with all its qualities, potentials, and types of awareness.
Often, we hear about outer and inner gurus. An outer guru is a human being who serves as a spiritual mentor. An inner guru, on the other hand, is neither a mysterious voice in a disciple's head giving guidance, nor some mystic in a Himalayan cave sending telepathic messages. In A Golden Rosary of Excellent Explanations, Tsongkhapa explained that on the sutra level, an inner guru is the compassion that grows while traversing the spiritual path. Inspired by compassion, disciples develop bodhichitta which, like a guru, is replete with good qualities and inspires them to attain these capabilities themselves.
In The Complete Fulfillment of Disciples' Hopes, Tsongkhapa indicated that on the highest tantra level, an inner guru is a disciple's deepest bodhichitta. The First Panchen Lama clarified this point in his Gelug classic, An Offering Ceremony to the Spiritual Masters (Lama Chopa; The Guru Puja). There, he called deepest bodhichitta Samantabhadra (the Totally Excellent One), a Nyingma term for pure awareness. In so doing, he revealed that, in the context of serving as an inner guru, a disciple's deepest bodhichitta is his or her clear light mind when it realizes voidness.
Moreover, since clear light mind, as a type of Buddha-nature, has the potential to recognize its own face and thus to realize voidness, a disciple's clear light mind may also serve as an inner guru, even before gaining self-realization. This extended sense of the term inner guru follows from the Buddhist analytical tool known as "giving the name of the result to the cause."
Tantric empowerment, then, requires both an outer and an inner guru. Inspiration from an outer guru, together with a disciple's realizations during the ceremony, provides "causal empowerment" that ripens into actual attainments. The Nyingma tradition explains the mechanism. The ripening process occurs only because an inner guru, as the deepest Buddha-nature, provides "foundational empowerment." As the foundation for all attainments, clear light mind encompasses all the excellent qualities that ripen into Buddhahood.
As an inner guru, clear light mind is also the ultimate source of inspiration. We may understand this in two ways. The Gelug tradition, combining its unique presentation of the Indian Prasangika-Madhyamaka school with the Guhyasamaja teachings, analyzes inspiration as a subtle form of energy (lung, rlung; Skt. prana). The deepest source of inspiring energy is subtlest life-supporting energy, which is the physical support of clear light mind. Since this subtlest energy flows inseparably with clear light mind, access to it comes only through accessing the subtlest level of mind.
The Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions follow the Indian mahasiddha (greatly accomplished yogi) style and employ a more poetic description. They call clear light mind the "foundation for everything" (Skt. alaya). In dzogchen terminology, waves of inspiration are its "effulgent play." In the same manner in which the brilliance of the sun is a quality that is inseparable from the sun itself, inspiration is an inseparable quality of clear light mind.
Dzogchen and mahamudra practices focus the mind on its own nature in order to realize voidness. For mind to focus on mind non-dualistically and to realize its void nature requires an exceptionally clear and energized mind that does the focusing and a similarly clear and energized mind upon which to focus. Otherwise, the focusing mind is too weak and the object of its focus is too obscure for there to be any hope of success.
The Kagyu and Gelug-Kagyu mahamudra traditions present both a sutra and a tantra form of this practice. Sakya mahamudra and Nyingma dzogchen treat only its tantra level. Mahamudra practiced on the sutra level focuses the grosser levels of mind on their own natures. This entails using the level of mental consciousness upon which conceptual thought operates to focus both on sensory consciousness and on itself. Tantra-level mahamudra and dzogchen focus clear light mind on its own nature. Success in doing this requires an even clearer and more energized mind than the sutra level demands.
In general, accessing a clear light mind requires more inspiration than any form of sutra path requires. A healthy relationship with a tantric master provides the extra energy needed. Since a root guru is the spiritual mentor who most strongly inspires a disciple, highest tantra practice proceeds more easily when one's tantric master is also one's root guru. For tantra mahamudra or dzogchen practice, however, a strong and deep relationship with a root tantric guru is indispensable. Therefore, Sakya Pandita asserted, in The Profound Path of Guru-Yoga, that requesting inspiration can bring disciples enlightenment only if directed at their empowering root tantric masters. If directed at any of their other mentors from whom they have not received empowerment, their requests can bring, at best, happiness only in this lifetime and just a small amount of inspiration.
In Clear Verses, Chandrakirti distinguished between interpretable and definitive phenomena. Interpretable phenomena do not exist in the way that they appear to exist. They require interpretation. Their correct interpretation leads to definitive phenomena, which do exist in the way in which they appear to exist. In A Lamp for Clearly Revealing the Other-Voidness Madhyamaka Tradition, the Eighth Karmapa explained clear light mind as a definitive phenomenon. Grosser levels of mind and appearance are interpretable in that they do not exist in the way that they appear, yet lead one deeper to the clear light mind.
Let us extend the Eighth Karmapa's discussion of interpretable and definitive phenomena to our present topic. The relationships with a Buddhism professor, a Dharma instructor, a meditation or ritual trainer, a refuge or vow preceptor, and a Mahayana master do not exist in the way that they appear. They seem to form a full sequence of student-teacher relationships that is sufficient for enabling a spiritual seeker to reach enlightenment. The sequence, however, leads to deeper relationships.
The interpretable sequence points first to building a relationship with a root guru as a tantric master. A healthy relationship with a tantric master then brings access to an inner guru, a disciple's clear light mind. Correctly relating with an inner guru leads to a clear light realization of voidness. This realization is the definitive relationship between a spiritual seeker and a spiritual teacher. Gaining this realization, Dragpa-gyeltsen confirmed in Three Rounds of Inspiration, is the ultimate aim of progressive relationships with spiritual teachers. By making a disciple's networks of good qualities, positive potentials, and deep awareness fully operational, the realization eliminates the obstacles preventing liberation and enlightenment, either in stages or all at once. Thus, a disciple becomes a Buddha, to the benefit of everyone.
Relating to progressively more advanced levels of spiritual teachers forms in itself a graded path to enlightenment. The appropriate relationships with a Buddhism professor, a Dharma instructor, and a meditation or ritual trainer lead the way to building a healthy relationship with a spiritual mentor. A wholehearted commitment to a Mahayana master as a spiritual mentor leads deeper to the establishment of a close bond (damtsig, dam-tshig; Skt. samaya) with a tantric master. Maintaining a close bond with a tantric master energizes the highest tantra methods to bring access to the clear light mind – the inner guru, the definitive level spiritual teacher. Keeping additional close bonds with the inner guru brings the clear light realization of voidness. Thus, proper reliance on the inner guru brings enlightenment.
All four Tibetan Buddhist traditions accept that the deepest aim of the disciple-mentor relationship is to bring about the benefits it grants in highest tantra practice. Thus, although each level of relationship suits a corresponding stage in a disciple's development, graded levels imply a hidden intention of preparing us for progressively deeper relationships. Any Tibetan presentation of the disciple-mentor relationship, then, needs interpretation within this context. A description of what may seem on the surface as a relationship for a beginner student or for a sutra-level disciple may not necessarily be meant for literal interpretation at that stage. As with the vajra-expressions of a root tantric text, the description may cloak a suggested deeper level of relationship and be meant non-metaphorically only at that level.
A final important point needs mention. Tsongkhapa stated in A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path that although tantra teaches the most efficient methods for attaining enlightenment, the tantra path may not suit everyone. We may conclude from this point that study with a spiritual teacher leads to building a relationship with a tantric master only if we wish to attain enlightenment through tantric means. If our spiritual goal are more modest or if other methods of practice suit us better, relating to a teacher as a tantric master is not only irrelevant but may potentially be disastrous because of mutual misunderstanding.