The common root tantric vows and those specific to Kalachakra both entail a promise to refrain from eight thick actions (sbom-po, heavy actions) that weaken meditation practice and hamper progress along the anuttarayoga tantra path. The damage we inflict is proportionate to the number and strength of the binding factors (kun-dkris) that accompany them. As with the 46 faulty actions that we promise to refrain from with the secondary bodhisattva vows, committing any of the eight, even with all four binding factors present, does not rid us of our tantric vows.
The Eight Thick Actions
(1) Appropriating discriminating awareness by force
Discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna, wisdom), here, is another name for women. By relying on the bliss and joy that come from union with one, without orgasmic release, a male enhances his blissful discriminating awareness of voidness. A female can accomplish the same while in union with a man, also without orgasmic release, by relying on the fact of her being a woman.
This thick action is alternatively called "relying on an unqualified sealing partner (phyag-rgya, Skt. mudra)." Sealing partner and pure awareness partner (rig-ma, knowledge woman) are other names for women. They help in realizing mahamudra – the great seal of voidness comprehended with clear light mental activity – or pure awareness (rig-pa), the equivalent of this in the Nyingma system of dzogchen.
As with the fifth Kalachakra root downfall, regarding ordinary sex and the bliss of orgasmic release as a path to liberation or enlightenment totally defeats tantric practice. This point provides the context for understanding this and the next thick action in both Kalachakra and other anuttarayoga systems. Even if we are not at the stage of having some level of blissful awareness of voidness – which sexual union without orgasmic release can enhance – and even if we lack the ability, gained through mastery of our energy-winds through yoga methods, to avoid orgasm when in union; nevertheless, as someone with tantric vows, we would naturally admire and sincerely wish to reach these stages. We need to regard our sexual lives within this perspective.
For this resolve not to weaken, it is important that our sexual partner share our attitude toward sex. An unqualified partner is someone who does not view sex from a tantric perspective. More specifically, our partner needs to have received empowerment, uphold tantric vows, and keep close bonds with the practices. Most importantly, she or he needs to safeguard purely the fifth Kalachakra root vow and not regard ordinary sex and the bliss of orgasmic release as something spiritual, or as a path to liberation or enlightenment.
When we view sex from a tantric perspective and our sexual partner simply wishes to share love and comfort, we do not need to feel that our two attitudes are mutually exclusive. Enhancing our blissful awareness of voidness through union with a partner is built on a foundation of sharing love and support with each other. However, if our partner is merely obsessed with greed and attachment for carnal pleasure, or views achieving a healthy orgasm as the cure for all psychological disorder, we easily fall prey to such emotions or ideas, and lose our perspective.
If we already have a sexual partner and become involved with tantra, while she or he does not, we certainly do not forsake that partner, or pursue extramarital relations with someone holding tantric vows. Nor do we need to convert our partner to Buddhism and pressure her or him to take initiation. On the other hand, we do not exploit this person for our spiritual practice, being dishonest with our feelings, or begrudgingly have sex as our duty while harboring resentment. We look to the bodhisattva vows and trainings for guidelines. Since our partner might understandably become totally repelled by tantra, Buddhism, and ourselves if we were haughtily to denounce her or him as unqualified and unworthy of sharing our bed, we continue having sex with the person motivated by love and compassion, at least to avoid this from happening. As with the practices to enhance our pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta, we then avoid causing our partner to regret positive actions, such as showing us love and wishing to give us happiness. Instead, if receptive, we gently encourage her or him to overcome shortcomings and realize potentials through effective methods, not ordinary sex. In this way, we try to make our two attitudes toward sex, if not the same, at least more compatible.
Further, a potential partner must not have been coerced to enter sexual union – either by subtle psychological pressure or by force. An example of the former is flattering the person as spiritually advanced, saying that she or he is helping us, as great tantric bodhisattvas, advance on the path and help others more. Forcing may be by hitting, pushing the person down, or humiliating her or him.
Even if a potential partner has received empowerment, keeps tantric vows, and shares our perspective on sex, we also incur this first heavy action if we force her or him to sit in union with us when circumstances are inappropriate. This might occur if the person were sick, married to someone else, under someone's guardianship, keeping other vows that restrict such conduct, shy, or unwilling. All these guidelines likewise apply to our sexual behavior in general.
(2) Appropriating her nectar by force
This thick action is alternatively called "sitting in union devoid of the three recognitions." This means being in sexual union, even with someone sharing our attitudes, without following the tantric procedures. When using the bliss of union to enhance our blissful awareness of voidness – whether with an actual physical partner or merely a visualized one in our imaginations – we distinguish and regard our minds, speech, and bodies as being dissociated from confusion (zag-med, uncontaminated). We call this the three recognitions ('du-shes gsum). Without such an attitude, the bliss of union enhances only our desires and attachment, rather than our blissful awareness of voidness.
Firstly, our state of mind while in union is a blissful awareness of voidness, on whatever level we can maintain it. We do not harbor ordinary thoughts or worries, for instance about how our sexual performance ranks with that of other people.
Secondly, our speech labels phenomena as what they conventionally are when not apprehended by a confused mind, but by one that is a blissful awareness of voidness. We represent this by using one aspect of our minds, which on a deeper level is still blissfully aware of voidness, to visualize our own and our partner's sexual organs dependently arising – from seed syllables – in the form of vajra and bell. These two ritual objects, used extensively in tantra practice, symbolize blissful awareness and discriminating awareness of voidness. We imagine them marked by these syllables as a further indication of pure mental labeling. With confusion and its attendant attachment, we label sexual organs as desirable objects for gaining the fleeting bliss of orgasmic release. Free of confusion, we label them in a purer manner, as objects that can help us enhance our blissful discriminating awareness of voidness.
Thirdly, our bodies and those of our partners appear in the forms of Buddha-figures which our minds give rise to while simultaneously maintaining, on a deeper level, blissful awareness of voidness. Since the mind that generates this appearance is not one of longing desire, this visualization is not at all the same as fantasizing ourselves and our partners as sexy movie stars.
Again, we must remember that even if we maintain this pure way of regarding our minds, speech, and bodies while in sexual union, if we consider the bliss of orgasmic release experienced within this context as a means for achieving liberation or enlightenment, we incur a Kalachakra root tantric downfall. This occurs whether we purposely cause that orgasmic release or experience it unintentionally. Furthermore, even when we visualize our own and our partner's bodies in pure forms as Buddha-figures, we do not lose sight of the conventional existence of ourselves as persons. Thus, we always remain sensitive to our own and our partner's feelings and needs. This is pertinent whether our partner shares our attitude and visualization, or is not involved in tantric practice.
(3) Showing confidential objects to improper vessels
With the seventh common root tantric downfall, we disclose confidential teachings to those without empowerment. Here, we show confidential objects to such persons, or to those with empowerment who lack respect for them. These objects include pictures, paintings, or statues of Buddha-figures, books containing explicit instructions for tantric practice, and our ceremonial vajra and bell. Although we do not lose our tantric vows by leaving these objects on public display in our homes, we devastate our practice when people make rude and lascivious remarks to us about Buddha-figures depicted in union, mock us as being superstitious or mad, or use our ritual items as paperweights. It is best to cover such items, or keep them in a private room. Tibetans, for example, hang a curtain in front of their paintings of Buddha-figures – especially those whose forms are open to misunderstanding by the uninitiated – and undrape them only when meditating or performing rituals.
(4) Arguing during an offering feast of tsog
During tsog pujas, we visualize ourselves as Buddha-figures, with a deeper level of our minds blissfully aware of voidness, and make special offerings with the wish for everyone to enjoy them purely and be happy. We do this in order to build up positive force (merit) and deep awareness. When we argue or fight during such ritual, we forget about our visualizations and appropriate states of mind. Consequently, our participation in the puja becomes ineffective for enhancing our spiritual paths.
(5) Indicating discrepant teachings to those with belief in fact (those with faith)
This thick action is alternatively called "giving false answers to sincerely asked questions." When someone who is a fit vessel, with proper empowerment, asks a sincere question about tantric practices, if we avoid the question by either changing the topic and speaking about something extraneous, or answering on a level different from that on which the person asked, we commit this thick action. Such evasive behavior is karmically detrimental to our own future receipt of straightforward answers to our questions. Even if someone with faith in tantra but lacking empowerment sincerely asks us a question, we do not ignore it. We answer, however in such a way as not to disclose explicit instructions that are to be kept confidential.
(6) Staying more than seven days among shravakas
In this context, shravakas (listeners) do not refer to Theravada practitioners, but to anyone who trivializes or makes fun of tantra. Staying for a long time among such persons discourages us from our paths, especially if they are actively hostile toward our meditation practice. Further, if the people with whom we live are only concerned about their own welfare and continually tell us we are stupid to try to help others, their self-centered outlooks slowly infect us. There is no fault, however, if we have no choice about whom we live with, such as at a training camp or needing to stay in a hospital ward. It is crucial in such situations, however – and even simply when living in a non-supportive and unsympathetic society – to keep our tantric practices and beliefs totally private. If we sit counting rosary beads and chanting mantras aloud in a crowded prison cell, we may be beaten to death!
(7) Falsely holding the pride of being a yogi
This is alternatively called "boasting to be a yogi, without properly being one." It is a thick action, detrimental to our progress, to imagine and boast that we are highly accomplished practitioners when we have merely recited a daily sadhana for some time or completed a meditation retreat during which we repeated a few mantras a hundred thousand times and gained no realization.
(8) Indicating the hallowed Dharma to those who will disbelieve what is fact
With the seventh common root tantric downfall, we disclose confidential teachings to those lacking empowerment. Here, we reveal them to those having empowerment, but lacking faith and respect in them. Some people take an empowerment in order to purify themselves from tantric root downfalls and to retake their vows, or to revitalize their vows if they have weakened them. If they do this at an empowerment into a tantric system in which they have no particular interest or belief, it is a thick action to teach them explicit practices specific to this system.
Three Auxiliary Thick Actions
Some texts supplement the list of eight secondary tantric vows with three auxiliary thick actions that also hamper our tantric practice. The twentieth-century Gelug master Pabongka (Pha-bong-kha Byams-pa bstan-'dzin 'phrin-las rgya-mtsho), for example, included the three in the list of secondary tantric vows when he expanded the Fourth Panchen Lama's Extensive Six-Session Yoga (Thun-drug rnal-'byor rgyas-pa) with the recitation of the lists of vows.
(1) Improperly engaging in mandala-rites, such as without a retreat
We may confer empowerment on others or perform the self-initiation (bdag-'jug) to restore our lost or weakened tantric vows only if we have completed the meditation retreat of the appropriate Buddha-figure, repeating the prescribed mantras hundreds of thousands of times, and offered the concluding fire-puja (sbyin-sreg).
(2) Transgressing our pratimoksha or bodhisattva vows when there is no need
Unless there is an urgent need to transgress them in order to benefit others, and there is no alternative, we safeguard our vows at all times.
(3) Acting counter to the teachings of "Fifty Stanzas on the Guru"
Fifty Stanzas on the Guru (Bla-ma lnga-bcu-pa, Skt. Gurupanchashika), by the 10th-century Indian master Ashvaghosha II, is the source of instructions for disciples' behavior toward their tantric masters. When time permits, spiritual mentors teach this text before conferring empowerment.