This evening I’ve been asked to speak about the Chakrasamvara system of anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra practice. And although I certainly am not an accomplished practitioner of this system by any means, I’ve received some teachings on it from my teachers. So what I’d like to present is based on a discourse by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Tsongkhapa’s commentary to the abbreviated tantra of Chakrasamvara called The Complete Elucidation of the Hidden Meanings (sBas-don kun-gsal) and also a discourse on the text, by one of His Holiness’s teachers, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, on the generation stage of the Luipa lineage of Chakrasamvara (Grub-chen Lu-i pa’i lugs-kyi dpal ‘khor-lo sdom pa’i bskyed-rim he-ru-ka’i zhal-lung) written by a great Tibetan master called Akhu Sherab-gyatso (A-khu Shes-rab rgya-mtsho). So what I’m explaining is based on that.
Why Should We Practice Tantra?
In general, when we want to learn something about tantra, it’s very important to examine why. Why do we want to know more about this? Why do we want to practice it? And as we went through in setting our motivation for this lecture, the main reason needs to be compassion, our deep concern for others, and our very, very strong bodhichitta wish to achieve not only better rebirths but, beyond that, liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth and, beyond that, the enlightened state of a Buddha to be able to help others as much as possible to also gain liberation and enlightenment.
And our compassion, our concern for others, is so strong that we want to do that in the most efficient way. That means we are not motivated by impatience in the sense that we’re lazy and we want something that’s fast and easy; but no matter how difficult the more efficient way is, we want to do that so that we can reach enlightenment as quickly as possible to be of best help to everyone, with the full enthusiasm, the armor-like perseverance it’s called, to endure the tremendous difficulties of practicing this highest-yoga practice. So we are not minimizing it, and we don’t have some false idea that this is going to be an easy path, but we’re willing to do it in order to help others. That’s very important. And with a realistic attitude toward tantra, then in order to be able to really engage in it – in addition to the basics of Buddhism, what Tsongkhapa calls the “three principal pathway minds” (renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct understanding of voidness) – we need to have confidence in the tantra path in general and in the anuttarayoga tantra path specifically.
Confidence. This is very important. That means that we not only understand how it works, how it will bring us to enlightenment, but also we are convinced that it will work and, on top of that, that we are capable of actually following that successfully to the goal of enlightenment. Otherwise, what are we doing in practicing this? We’re practicing something we don’t understand, we don’t know how it works, and we’re not convinced that we can get anywhere with it. So that’s very weak practice, isn’t it?
Now, you might object. There’s always the Buddhist method – not just Buddhist, it’s the Indian method – which is to give the point of view of the objection to it, the other side, and then answer that objection. Well, didn’t Buddha also say that if you’re shot by an arrow, you don’t need to first ask, “Who shot the arrow?” and “What is it made of?” and “How will it kill me?” and so on – you just want to take the arrow out? So why do we need to understand anything about the practice? Shouldn’t we just follow it on the basis of faith in our teachers?
And although for some practitioners that may work, Buddha also taught many different styles, and one can combine these two approaches – that we start to get involved with tantra, but to really make our foundation firm, it’s important to understand what we’re doing and be convinced that it will work.
I’m sure many of you took these empowerments, these initiations, based on just confidence that, “Well, my teacher said it would be good. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is giving it. Let’s go and do it!” without having really any clear understanding of what you’re getting involved with. So that’s the first approach – just pull out the arrow. But now that you’ve sort of gotten into it: If we look at the texts concerning tantra, it says that in the beginning, before an empowerment, the teacher as part of the empowerment ceremony explains the tantra path in order to generate confidence in that path in the disciples. It’s part of the ritual. So although that might not take a tremendous amount of time – so you don’t have to wait until you’ve died from the arrow while you get a long explanation – it’s a combination of the two approaches, isn’t it? So now that some of you have received the empowerment, in order to really practice it with conviction it’s very helpful to know how it works.
Why Do We Need Chakrasamvara?
The next question is: Why do we need yet another deity? Aren’t there enough? Why do we need Chakrasamvara? And that’s a very valid question. There are so many different deity practices, why this one? Why yet another one?
And here we need to understand what is the general method that is used in anuttarayoga tantra. When we understand all the different aspects that are involved in the path, then we see that it is really quite complex, quite complicated. And although each of the tantras, the various anuttarayoga deity practices, will give the entire picture of the entire process, the entire path, they’ll have more detail on one aspect of it than another. Chakrasamvara is the system that gives the most detail on one aspect. So let me present the general picture, and then you can understand a little bit better which aspect Chakrasamvara gives us the most detailed practice for.
If we look at the structure of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, everything revolves around the issue of rebirth (in fact, the boundary between a Dharma practice and not yet a Dharma practice is whether or not we’re concerned about rebirth, about future lives):
- So the initial level motivation – we want to continue having better types of rebirth, more specifically precious human rebirths, in all our future lives so that we can continue on the path of the practice.
- But we realize that no matter what type of rebirth we have, whether a worse rebirth or better rebirth, it’s still filled with all sorts of problems. So we want to gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. That’s what samsara means: uncontrollably recurring rebirth. So we want to gain liberation.
- And then the advanced scope – we want to go beyond that and attain the enlightened state of a Buddha so that we can help everybody else overcome this uncontrollably recurring rebirth.
So in the intermediate scope in lam-rim, after we have described all the different types of suffering and the causes of suffering (karma, disturbing emotions, etc.), there’s a general presentation then of the process of death, bardo, and rebirth, and then a very detailed presentation of the twelve links of dependent arising, which describe the whole mechanism of how rebirth works under the influence of karma and disturbing emotions. We learn from the twelve links that the root cause of this whole thing is our unawareness (that’s often translated as “ignorance”). And because the system of the twelve links is shared in common with both the Hinayana and the Mahayana systems, then the unawareness here is the unawareness of how persons exist – how we exist and everybody else exists. But in the Mahayana, more specifically the Prasangika Madhyamaka, viewpoint of this, as presented in the Gelug tradition by Tsongkhapa, then the root of these twelve links – this first link of unawareness – is the unawareness of how all phenomena exist, and that pertains to persons as well as everything.
And in the advanced scope, what we’re adding here is bodhichitta as the force of the mind that is going to understand the voidness of the impossible “self” of all things, the impossible way of existing of everything. Right? We project, we imagine, that everything exists in impossible ways, that they are establishing themselves independently of everything. And that doesn’t correspond to anything. So voidness means a total absence of an actual corresponding thing, a referent, to what we project. And then we understand that everything arises dependently on causes, conditions, and what mental labels refer to. Okay, this is not a lecture on voidness, but I had to say that.
What we want, then, is to have a mind which nonconceptually understands voidness, voidness of all phenomena, so that we basically do not have the arising of any disturbing emotions. (All the disturbing emotions are based on that unawareness. You know, we think “I exist” as some separate thing over here, and there’s this annoying thing over there that is just existing by itself as something annoying, and then I have anger: “I have to get rid of it.”) And when we no longer have these disturbing emotions and we no longer have this grasping for impossible ways of existing (what’s usually called truly established existence), then there’s nothing that will activate the karmic tendencies. And when there’s nothing to activate it, when there’s no possibility for these karmic tendencies to be activated at the time of death or before, then you can no longer say that we have these karmic tendencies (they only exist dependently on being able to give a result). And then you’re free of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. And to be able to benefit others, we need to arise in some physical form that will be able to help others without the restrictions of this type of karmic body. So that’s wonderful – very difficult though.
Now, if we do this in the general sutra ways, and we gain this nonconceptual cognition of voidness, and even if have the force of bodhichitta behind it – and even if we are able to maintain that forever, always – still we are doing this on the level of mind at which again the disturbing emotions could arise and the level of mind which, if it’s not nonconceptually focused on voidness, would give rise to or project these appearances of truly established existence. In other words, we’re still working at that level of mental activity which is quite dangerous because, except for the time when we are nonconceptually focused on voidness, it’s always a troublemaker; it’s always causing trouble.
So that’s the sutra level. And if you stay with that level of mind focused on voidness all the time? Well, fine. Then you don’t have this trouble. But let’s face it, a lot of the time we’re not focused. Even when we are capable of focusing nonconceptually on voidness, we’re not focused on that all the time. You’d have to go through huge amounts of further practice to be able to have that all the time. So that’s difficult; possible, but difficult.
However, there is a more subtle level of mind – or mental activity, I should say – which is called the subtlest level. It’s sometimes called the clear-light level of mind. And please when we say this word “mind,” you need to understand it as mental activity. We’re not talking about some sort of thing inside you, like a brain. We’re talking about a level of mental activity which is much more subtle than the level of mental activity that’s totally dependent on a brain. But it’s the most subtle level. It provides the continuity lifetime to lifetime and into the enlightened state of a Buddha.
Now, this level of mind is not a troublemaker. It is so subtle, it is more subtle than the level of mind that has the projection of these impossible ways of existing; it doesn’t do that. And it doesn’t have any type of disturbing emotions. And it is totally nonconceptual, which is not so easy to understand. You have to understand what conceptual cognition means, which, in just a few words, is to perceive things in terms of categories. And when we perceive things in terms of categories, it gives the impression that everything exists in boxes – the box of the category of good, bad, pretty, ugly, red, yellow, orange, etc. But of course things don’t exist in boxes with big walls around them, separating them from everything else, which is of course the impression that we would get from words, from language, etc. So this clear-light level of mental activity is more subtle than that level that works with categories of things.
Now, the problem is how do we access this level of mental activity. Because if we could get that understanding of voidness with that level of mental activity, it would be much more efficient, because automatically it would be nonconceptual, and it’s a level of mind that doesn’t cause any of these troubles.
Although we have access to that level of mental activity at the time of death, it doesn’t automatically have a cognition or understanding of voidness. Although the appearance that it gives rise to is similar to the type of appearance that we get when we have this cognition of voidness, it doesn’t understand it by itself automatically. And it is not naturally blissful, at least according to the Gelugpa explanation of it. Right? Here it’s the bliss of being free from the disturbing emotions, their tendencies and habits, and so on. So it’s not automatically like that. At the time of death, you can still impute on it the tendencies and habits – it’s just that they are not producing anything; they are inactive. So it’s not automatically blissful in the sense of the bliss that is free forever of those tendencies and habits. That’s the Gelugpa explanation. Right? Sakya has a different explanation, but there’s no need to give variants.
Okay, so here is our mission, our goal, why we practice anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra. We want to get access to this clear-light level of mental activity, and we want to make it have the understanding of voidness – it will automatically be nonconceptual – and we want to make it blissful. Okay? So this is called inseparable voidness and bliss. You get that a lot in Gelugpa. It’s not that simple to understand what it means.
Now, how do we access this clear-light level without having to die in order to do that? And there are various methods in which we experience something a little bit similar to it during our lifetime: when you sneeze and so on, or you yawn, or you have orgasm. Because just the moment before sneezing, or yawning, or orgasm, there is an “Aaaaah” – like that, sort of a drawing in of energy. So in that microsecond when it is drawn in, then it’s something similar to, not exactly the same as, the clear-light mind. But unfortunately the microsecond after that there’s an explosion outwards and it’s lost. So it’s useless, but it gives us some indication that there is this more subtle level when the energy is withdrawn.
Okay. So what we want to do of course is to be able to withdraw the energy without having an explosion afterwards, hold it. There are two basic ways of doing this. One is working with the energies, so-called energy winds (rlung) – wind, energy, breath, that’s all the same word. We’re talking about subtle energy here, subtle energy working through the subtle energy system of the chakras and channels, etc. So one method is working with these to get them into the central channel and to get the mental activity to withdraw from the grosser energies as its basis. That’s what usually called dissolving, but “dissolving” gives the wrong idea. And the other method is to work within the central channel of experiencing increasing levels of blissful awareness based on also manipulating certain things within the central channel. And both of these will bring you to the same point at which then you have to further withdraw the mental activity from what’s known as the eighty subtle conceptual levels (kun-rtog brgyad-cu) and then, further, the three subtlest conceptual levels (snang-ba gsum) – eighty and three – so that then you get to the clear-light level of mental activity. So although that sounds complicated, it can give us a little bit of confidence that it’s all mapped out, what the process is.
In the New Tantra (gSar-ma) traditions of Kagyu, Sakya and Gelugpa, this is the method that’s followed. And in the Nyingma system, although you will have practiced these various methods earlier on, at the actual time of accessing the clear-light level – which is called rigpa, pure awareness – you don’t have to in that actual session first do these other practices with the winds or the blisses; you get it in a more direct way, based on the instincts from previous practice with what’s called dzogchen (rdzogs-chen) meditation.
So either we’re working with the winds or we’re working with the blisses within the central channel. And then in our actual meditation to attain clear light, we work through these stages in that session to get to the clear light. Or in Nyingma we’ve done that before, and then in that actual session when we access this equivalent, this rigpa – it’s not exactly equivalent, but for the purposes of our discussion it’s equivalent – then you don’t have to rely on those other things during that session, but you’ve done it anyway. So we shouldn’t think that all these systems are so different or they don’t somehow fit together. They’re all basically aiming for the same thing – to get to this subtlest level of mind, to have it be blissful – of course have the energy of bodhichitta behind it – to have it have nonconceptual cognition of voidness, and to have it, by definition, be withdrawn from the energy winds that support the grosser levels of mind. Okay. So it’s a little bit complex, I know, but this is the picture.
So now we’ll work within the Sarma, the New Tantra division (Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelugpa). You’ll have some tantras – we’re talking about anuttarayoga tantra – that will have more detail on working with the actual subtle energies, the winds, the breaths. This is found in the most detail in the Guhyasamaja system. And you’ll have other tantras which will give much more detail and elaborate practices for experiencing the four stages of bliss within the central channel, and Chakrasamvara gives the most detail for that. Now, although one can achieve the more subtle levels working with either of the two systems, to have a little bit of experience with both is helpful. But, depending on our energy systems and so on, one will have an easier time with one rather than the other.
And all of these are going to be aiming to reach that clear-light state of mind, as I said, with nonconceptual cognition of voidness and blissful, the bliss of having achieved some true stopping of at least some level of the obstacles preventing liberation or enlightenment. And then within that state, we want to generate the form of what would become the body of a Buddha, a cause for the body of a Buddha. And the systems in which we work with the winds – Guhyasamaja system – then the type of body that we generate from that clear-light mind is called illusory body (sgyu-lus), which is obtained working more with these energy winds. And in the Chakrasamvara system, we generate the body in terms of what’s known as a rainbow body (’ja’-lus), and that’s working more on the bliss side. So, very nice.
Now, all of that’s done on what’s known as the complete stage (rdzogs-rim). That’s the second stage of anuttarayoga tantra practice. And the first stage is called the generation stage (bskyed-rim), in which we do all of this in our imagination. In the complete stage we are actually really working with the energy systems and the central channel and all of this. But on the generation stage, we start by just imagining it. So in the Guhyasamaja system, we have very elaborate generation-stage visualizations of dissolving the various winds. And in the Chakrasamvara system, we have very elaborate visualizations which are helping to imagine the different stages of bliss.
Although there’s a lot more detail and a lot more specifics that could be discussed, maybe that’s enough to answer this question “Why yet another deity? Why Chakrasamvara?” Chakrasamvara will help us to experience the stages of bliss within the central channel that will enable us to reach the subtlest level of mind so that then we can bring in the understanding of voidness and all the other practices to achieve the state of a Buddha.
By the way, these levels of bliss cause the energies to get more subtle. In other words, we’re accomplishing the same thing through two methods. One method is actually, through various yoga processes, bringing these winds into the central channel – it has a lot to do with certain breathing practices – so that the mental activity withdraws more and more from these energy winds. The other method, Chakrasamvara, is to generate these increasing levels of bliss, which also causes the mental activity to withdraw from these grosser levels of the winds. Right? That’s the whole point, is to get to this subtle level of mental activity, the subtlest level. So we’re not just playing with nice visualizations and feeling more and more happy. That’s not at all what we’re talking about here. That’s a very trivial level. But if we understand what is the purpose of the various visualizations in the Chakrasamvara practice and how they will work, this gives us great confidence. So in sadhana practice or whatever, by using the imagination I am building up the causes for actually being able to work with the energy systems to experience all the stages of this process. Okay, that’s Chakrasamvara.
Now, the level of practice that we might be doing as an introductory level might be so simplified that it doesn’t even have any of these aspects of the practice in it, and it’s just a very generic type of practice that you find with any deity, but remember that is just for getting the very basics. That’s the baby-step level of the practice. It’s very necessary to have some mastery of that level with a simple sadhana, but you should have some idea of where it’s leading. Realize that having gone up the staircase, hopefully, of lam-rim and reached a certain level, now we’ve reached the first step of the staircase of the generation stage, and then there’s a whole other staircase of the complete stage practice. But if we have confidence that “Here’s the staircase, here are all the steps, and there’s the goal” and I see very clearly that these steps lead to that goal, then even though it might be difficult to go up the steps, we have confidence that we’re going in the right way. And even if we don’t get terribly far in this lifetime, remember we are not ignoring the initial scope lam-rim, and we’re also trying to build up causes to continue having a precious human rebirth and continue in future lives on this path. Never ignore the lam-rim level of practice.
Okay. Now a little bit of information that maybe fills in a little bit about this practice.
The Meaning of the Name Chakrasamvara
First of all, what does the name Chakrasamvara mean? In Tibetan it’s Khorlo dompa (’Khor-lo sdom-pa). Samvara means “collected together.” And khorlo or chakra is a “circle,” and it’s referring to the circle of the deities that are involved or representing body, speech, and mind. So what we have are all the aspects of body, speech, and mind collected together within the context of blissful nonconceptual cognition of voidness.
And sometimes we find that this system is just called not Chakrasamvara but just Samvara, which as a whole word means “collected together.” But the Tibetans will take this word samvara and divide it into the prefix sam and the word vara, and sam they translate with the word dey (bde), which means “bliss,” and vara as chok (mchog), “supreme.” So that’s how you get the Tibetan name Demchok (bde-mchog). It means “supreme bliss.”
Another name for Chakrasamvara is Heruka. He is the first syllable of a Sanskrit word which means “to sport with,” which means “to act with in a joyful way.” And the second syllable, ru, is short for the Sanskrit word for blood. And ka is short for the Sanskrit word for skullcup. And so Heruka is “the one who sports, or acts joyfully, with blood in the skullcup,” which has many, many different levels of what it represents. It represents various things in the subtle energy system used to get access to this subtlest mental activity. So because of this etymology of the name Heruka, the Tibetans sometimes call Heruka Traktung (Khrag-’thung), which means “blood drinker.” Well, it doesn’t mean that Heruka is a vampire. Don’t translate it as vampire, please. And in the Kagyu and Nyingma systems, Heruka is sometimes used as a general name for male deities. But in the Gelugpa system, Heruka is not used with that meaning.
So these are all the different names that we will come across for this deity and the deity system. Sometimes the name is given just to the central figure. Sometimes the name is given for the entire group of figures (it’s actually sixty-two figures in the Chakrasamvara system).
The Textual Tradition
So what do we study? What are the texts? The full Chakrasamvara tantras were in two versions, one in 300,000 verses and one in 100,000 verses – verses called shloka in Sanskrit, a four-line verse of a certain type of meter – and these were not translated into Tibetan. This we find quite frequently with these tantras, that the large tantras never made it into Tibetan, and actually they seem to have been lost in Sanskrit for the most part, not completely. But there’s an abbreviated root tantra, and that was translated into Tibetan, and it’s in fifty-one chapters. Fifty-one is for the letters in the Sanskrit alphabet (there are fifty-one letters). The root tantra is mostly about the complete-stage practice. And there are many Indian commentaries.
When we talk about the anuttarayoga tantras, we have a division into two. We have what’s called the clear tantras and the hidden, or obscure, tantras. The clear, or obvious, tantra is referring to Kalachakra, and there the various practices – and we’re referring to some very specific practices (I don’t need to go into the detail) – are explained very clearly and openly.
And in the hidden, or obscure, tantras – Chakrasamvara is one of them – the explanations in the root tantra are written in a very obscure, hidden manner that is not at all obvious what it means. And because of that they have what are known as explanatory tantras to expand and make the meaning clear, as we have in the Guhyasamaja system, for example. So here we have that also in Chakrasamvara. And Tsongkhapa explains that there’s the root tantra for Chakrasamvara, explanatory tantras, and what’s called branch, or auxiliary, tantras. And there’s dispute whether there are four or five explanatory tantras. Tsongkhapa says there’s five, but then in another work he says there are six (if we count the root tantra together with them).
They had Sanskrit original versions of this material. When Buton, a great Sakya master, put together the Kangyur, the collection of the words of the Buddha, he included only those works which have a Sanskrit original. So this fact that there are the Sanskrit originals of the root tantra and explanatory tantras, etc., adds to its validity. For the Tibetans that was very important, although again one can start to get into a little debate about that because of the whole issue of revealed texts and treasure texts and so on (in other words, if it was revealed by Vajradhara in India it was more valid than if it was revealed in Tibet, and so on). So you can get into a lot of debates about it. But anyway Buton had his criteria.
There are three main lineages of Chakrasamvara. These derive from three great Indian masters. Their names are Luipa, and then Ghantapa (in Tibetan he’s called Drilbupa), and Krishnacharya (in Tibetan known as Nagpopa). This Drilbupa, or Ghantapa, lineage has both a five-deity practice and a body-mandala practice (See also: What is Mandala?). I believe the empowerment that you received from His Holiness the Dalai Lama was this five-deity practice within the Drilbupa, Ghantapa, tradition. So what are the differences here?
- From a vision of Vajradhara – so again it came from a vision, but it happened to be in India, so that was okay – Luipa wrote down the root and explanatory tantras. The Luipa tradition is mainly noted for its explanation of the activities that are based on the practice. And on the generation stage it’s the most complete form, the most extensive form. So there are sixty-two deities in the mandala, and we have both the sixty-two deities in the external mandala (which is a palace, a building) plus the sixty-two deities arranged in different parts of the body as the body mandala of the main figure. So this is the most complex of these generation-stage practices, and it’s what is primarily practiced in the Gelugpa monasteries.
- Nagpopa’s explanation of the presentation in the root tantra of the complete stage is the clearest, so his tradition is recommended for the study of the tantra texts. I must say from my experience that I haven’t come across people in the Gelugpa tradition practicing the actual sadhanas and so on from Nagpopa’s lineage, although there must be some people who do. But it’s mostly followed for its explanation of the tantra texts.
- And the Drilbupa tradition. The body-mandala practice of it is a special lineage in which the empowerment is given from the body mandala as opposed to given from an external mandala. It has a great deal of detail on the complete-stage practice, and so the Drilbupa tradition is noted for studying when you want to study the very profound meaning of the complete stage.
His Holiness recommended that for understanding the root tantra, always rely on the explanatory tantras of Vajradhara himself (so the actual Indian explanatory tantras) and the oral tradition coming from Naropa. This is very much the standard recommendation that His Holiness always gives – that all the Tibetan traditions come from India, and so rely on the Indian texts, the original versions, and not on the later Tibetan commentaries. Later Tibetan commentaries can clarify, but don’t only rely on the later Tibetan sources; go back to the Indian origin.
So again, just to give you some more information – whether it’s interesting or useful or not, I don’t know – the complete stage, where you actually work with the blisses and the energy systems, is the main topic of the root tantra and its explanatory tantras. One difference is that the Luipa tradition divides the complete tantra into six stages, Drilbupa into five stages, Nagpopa into four stages. So there are different ways of classifying it.
And even on the generation stage we have two traditions. The secondary figures, the so-called dakas and dakinis – it’s not clear in the root tantras, but in the Luipa tradition they have four arms; in the Drilbupa tradition they have two arms. What is the conclusion from that? It doesn’t matter how many arms they have. Don’t get hung up on whether it has four or two arms. There are many variants of everything. Welcome to the world of Tibetan Buddhism!
It’s very interesting. I’m reading a book by an Indian author, Rajiv Malhotra, called Being Different in which he makes the case for how different the Dharmic traditions (that’s Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) are from the Abrahamic traditions (that is, Judaism, Christianity, and he doesn’t go into Islam, but that would be on that side as well).
- In the Abrahamic traditions you have a very uneasy merging of the Biblical traditions with Greek rationalism. And so within that tradition, things being a little bit chaotic and having too many variants and so on is very, very uncomfortable. Everything has to be rationally in order, controlled – God, one truth, etc.
- Whereas in the Dharmic traditions of India, there’s no problem whatsoever with chaos. Chaos doesn’t need to be controlled. Underlying the – in Buddhism it’s called the play of clear light – underlying the whole diversity of different forms is a basic unity. So those of you who have visited India know that you can have a society that functions perfectly well and looks, from a Western point of view, completely chaotic.
So please when trying to practice Buddhism, or Hinduism or whatever, if you try to approach it from this “Everything has to be in order and under control,” this sort of Western point of view, you’re going to be very frustrated. So “Four arms, two arms? Same, same,” the sort of Indian attitude – try to be comfortable with that. Okay?
Many of you perhaps have heard of Vajrasattva, Heruka Vajrasattva. There is an anuttarayoga Vajrasattva Samvara empowerment – remember Samvara was one of the names for Chakrasamvara – who is white with three faces, six arms, and embracing a partner that looks the same. And this comes from a collection of empowerments known as Vajramala. So you actually visualize yourself as Vajrasattva in this form. This is within the Gelug tradition, but it is extremely, extremely rare and not usually practiced. So in our usual Chakrasamvara sadhanas where you have the Heruka Vajrasattva practice, it’s not this one. It’s just our usual white Vajrasattva couple on the head (a little bit more fangs than the usual one). Same, same. And a few syllables in the mantra are different – you say Herukasattva rather than Vajrasattva. You also have variants of Yamantakasattva. You have also have variants of Padmasattva. Same, same. It doesn’t matter.
That’s very important. That really is. All the guru yogas, all the trees of assembled gurus – there are so many variants. They’re all the same. To try to get it into order and “It has to be like this” and “It can’t be like that” and so on is really quite futile and is a terrible diversion from the essence of the practice. Try to get to the essence, the meaning, the unity behind all of them, despite the chaos of all the various variant forms that they present themselves in. Okay. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s really quite brilliant how Malhotra brings this point out.
Tantra in the Gelug Tradition
The Six Buddha-Figure Systems
Now, in the Gelug tradition – if that’s the tradition that we’re following – of Tsongkhapa, it’s helpful to know what Tsongkhapa himself practiced. And he practiced six main anuttarayoga Buddha-figure systems:
- Within Guhyasamaja there are various forms of Guhyasamaja, and he practiced the Akshobhya form, which means that the central deity is an Akshobhya variant.
- Then the Chakrasamvara system he followed – his main practice was one of them, the Luipa tradition.
- And within Vajrabhairava, or Yamantaka, he had two main practices – the thirteen-deity practice, which is actually thirteen couples, and the single-figure Vajrabhairava.
- And then Kalachakra.
- And finally the Mahachakra form of Vajrapani, which is the anuttarayoga form of Vajrapani with three faces, six arms. A very nice practice.
The Eight Discourse Traditions
But concerning the complete-stage practice of anuttarayoga tantra, there are eight discourse traditions:
- So within Chakrasamvara, again the Luipa lineage of complete-stage practice
- The Drilbupa, or Ghantapa, body-mandala lineage of Chakrasamvara (so two Chakrasamvara systems)
- And then the six yogas, or six practices, of Naropa
- And then two lineages of Guhyasamaja, the so-called Arya or Aryadeva lineage and the Jnanapada lineage
- And then the complete-stage practice of Vajrabhairava
- And the complete stage practice of this Mahachakra form of Vajrapani.
So if we want to follow the Gelugpa tradition, this is what it is.
The Combined Practice of Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, and Vajrabhairava
One of the specialties within the Gelugpa system, particularly of Tsongkhapa, is the combined practice of the three main Gelugpa deities – Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, and Vajrabhairava. So within these three systems, the way that they are practiced, what is emphasized in the monasteries and in the tantric colleges is the Akshobhya form of Guhyasamaja, the Luipa system of Chakrasamvara – remember that’s the one with sixty-two deities in the external mandala and sixty-two deities in the body mandala – and the Thirteen-Deity Yamantaka, or Vajrabhairava, practice. So this five-deity Drilbupa tradition that you received is basically a preliminary for the body-mandala practice.
So out of these three systems that are put together, which is very unique and very special in Gelugpa:
- Guhyasamaja is the foundation. So this is the system in which you find these Indian commentaries that explain the theory of the entire tantra system and how you can decode these hidden, or obscure, tantras.
- Then Yamantaka is used in terms of, first of all, the Manjushri practices that are associated with it for developing more discriminating awareness, and it’s the context within which all of the protector practices are done in Gelugpa. So if you’re doing any protector practice – we’re talking about Mahakala, Yamaraja, Palden Lhamo, etc. (these are the three big ones) – then the protectors are invited into the Vajrabhairava mandala, and you as Vajrabhairava in the center are ordering them and have control over them. I mean, there are other protector practices as well. I just mentioned these three as an example. In order to be able to order these protectors, you have to be in a very, very strong form, so Vajrabhairava.
- And then Chakrasamvara is brought in for the tummo (gtum-mo), the internal heat practices, which are essential for experiencing these different levels of bliss within the central channel that I mentioned.
So to fill in various aspects within the context of the foundation of Guhyasamaja, one practices and studies the Vajrabhairava system and the Chakrasamvara system. So His Holiness explains that these three are the basis. And if you can do other anuttarayoga practices on the side, that’s okay. But without the basis of Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Vajrabhairava, it is not appropriate.
Now, you find some practitioners within the Gelugpa tradition put a great deal of emphasis on Vajrayogini. Vajrayogini is the female partner of the male Chakrasamvara major deity. But now I will quote His Holiness the Dalai Lama concerning that, from this discourse on Tsongkhapa’s commentary to the abbreviated Chakrasamvara tantra. His Holiness said, “Of the eighteen volumes of Tsongkhapa’s works, five volumes are on Guhyasamaja. That’s the largest topic that he wrote about. But he wrote only three pages on Vajrayogini. And in his commentary on this abbreviated Chakrasamvara tantra, there are very few words on Vajrayogini.” His Holiness said, “If you have a special connection with the Sakya lineage and Vajrayogini” – the Gelugpa practice of Vajrayogini, by the way, was borrowed into Gelugpa from Sakya centuries after Tsongkhapa – “then it’s okay to do that practice. But if you are a Gelugpa practitioner” – mind you, he’s speaking to an audience of the monks of Ganden, Sera, Drepung, and the tantric colleges, and Namgyal monastery – “you must do Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, and Yamantaka and follow Tsongkhapa’s works.”
So he’s not calling for the abolition of the Vajrayogini practice within Gelugpa. He says that if it’s done privately and to the side, it’s beneficial, but it’s not to be done as a monastery practice. And so we can extrapolate from that for a Gelugpa center as well: To do it privately, on the side, fine, but not as a practice that you do together in the center. And His Holiness says this is very important, particularly for the tantric colleges and Namgyal monastery. So this tendency to forsake and forget about the Guhyasamaja practice and just emphasize Vajrayogini in the monasteries, this he was extremely critical of.
Now how you put these three practices together (this is quite special of Tsongkhapa):
- On the generation stage, when we’re doing these sadhanas or visualizations, he says you do all three of them. Because in the Chakrasamvara one there will be much more detailed visualizations for these four blisses. In Guhyasamaja you’ll have much more detail of the dissolving of the energy winds and the generation of various illusory bodies to help others. And Vajrabhairava, who has Manjushri in his heart, this is especially effective for very special practices for developing the different types of discriminating awareness, or wisdom, and also doing all the protector practices.
- On the complete stage, when we’re ready to do that, the basic form that you use of yourself as the practitioner is Vajrabhairava, Yamantaka, because this is the container within which you can put together the wind practices of Guhyasamaja and the bliss practices from Chakrasamvara. So basically what you do on the complete stage, within the context of Vajrabhairava, are the tummo practices from Chakrasamvara – as Vajrabhairava you do the tummo practices of Chakrasamvara, within the context of Vajrabhairava – and then the generation of all the various illusory bodies from the winds according to Guhyasamaja. Vajrabhairava can recite, “Om mani padme hum.” Vajrabhairava can do any type of practice. You shouldn’t think that these are contradictory or exclusive of each other.
Combining the Three Deities in the Lama Chopa Practice
Then there’s a way of combining the three deities in the Lama Chopa, the Guru Puja practice. When you do the practice, in the very beginning you generate yourself in the form of one of the deities. That would be Yamantaka, Vajrabhairava. And then the central figure in the tree of assembled gurus is Tsongkhapa. In his heart is Buddha Shakyamuni. In Buddha Shakyamuni’s heart is Vajradhara. But in addition there’s the complete thirty-two deity body mandala of Guhyasamaja within Tsongkhapa’s body.
Then when you make the offerings in Lama Chopa, you do it extensively, as in Chakrasamvara. That’s in addition to the usual offerings that we have in all the various systems. I’m talking about the outer offerings, which are:
- Argham – water to drink
- Padyam – water to wash the feet.
Right? Imagine that the Buddha came to your house with all his monks, walking barefoot in the dusty dirt in India. So he comes to your house. You first give them something to drink, some water – they’re thirsty – that’s argham. And padyam – wash off their feet dirty from walking barefoot.
- Anchamanam – water to rinse out the mouth
- Prokshanam – water for sprinkling. In other words, take a shower. They’re very sweaty because it’s hot.
- Pushpe – a flower garland on his head, in other words around his neck.
And with all these offerings, you do it like Chakrasamvara, which is to generate bliss, happiness. So a very beautiful offering goddess, or whatever, offers it.
- Dhupe – incense, presented to his nose to smell, very nice smelling
- Dipe – a butter lam to his eyes.
It would be like sitting down to a meal. So you light a candle, and you’d light some incense.
- Gandhe – cologne water: sometimes you have these little towels with cologne water that you can wash your hands with, sprinkle it on, put it on your face before a nice meal
- Naividya – nice food to his mouth
- Shabda – nice music to his ears while you eat.
You have to think of this within the context of Buddha coming to your house from walking there and you offering him a nice meal. So it’s very joyful, and it gives joy to the Buddha. And in various parts of the sadhana – this is also quite unique in Gelugpa – you imagine that offering goddesses give that to you as well. So you enjoy it. It enhances your bliss.
But in Chakrasamvara we have sixteen more offerings which are made. So again this whole emphasis on enhancing this bliss, this happiness. So more forms of music, nice entertainment:
- First the vina, which is a type of Indian stringed instrument
- And then a flute
- Then a front drum, sort of like a tabla
- And then a side drum – this type of drum that has two sides; you hold it horizontally in your lap and you strike both sides. Very popular in South India.
So you imagine very beautiful offering goddesses doing this. If you’re a woman and it doesn’t turn you on to have offering goddesses give you these things, you can imagine a very handsome offering god doing this. Same, same. It doesn’t matter. The point is to generate bliss: you feel very happy; it turns you on.
- And then an offering goddess that smiles, laughs
- And then one that flirts with you
- And then one that comes and sings some beautiful song
- And one that does a very nice dance, not one of these Bollywood things with fifty people, but something very sensual
- And then again flowers, tossing flower petals
- And more incense
- And more butter lamps or candles – they wouldn’t have had butter lamps in India, so candles
- And more cologne.
- And then we have a form goddess for the Buddha – so somebody who is really, really beautiful – to really turn you on. How absolutely gorgeous this goddess is.
- And then vajra taste. So they will give you the most delicious delicacy.
- And then vajra touch to sort of go nice and massage you and so on
- And then a beautiful goddess or god, whatever you want to visualize, embracing you, giving a lovely hug.
So in a very extensive way, you do these practices to enhance a very joyful, blissful mind. So that’s thrown into the Lama Chopa, the Guru Puja, from Chakrasamvara, and it is quite strong within the Chakrasamvara practice.
So if one really wants to get into it and not just go “argham, padyam, pushpe, dhupe…” in three seconds and you are finished with the offerings, if you do a little bit more extensively and slowly, it can really build up a very joyful, blissful state of mind, which is the whole point. Right? Of course eventually we need to be able to do things very quickly. As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche always said, “When death comes, it doesn’t wait for you to do practices very slowly. You have to be able to do everything instantly.” So don’t get too strongly in the habit of doing things slowly, but that’s how you start.
The Triple Purification
But you should be aware that the most common, generic form of Chakrasamvara practice on the beginning stage is not one of these sadhanas, but it’s one portion which you find in all the sadhanas of all the different forms of Chakrasamvara, which is known as the Triple Purification. This is what is basically practiced as the first stage of Chakrasamvara practice. Sadhana is the second step. The first step is this portion.
And this triple purification starts with the full Vajrasattva practice with the Heruka variant of the mantra. I mean, of course there’s refuge, bodhichitta, the four immeasurables – that goes without saying – as the beginning. And then you have a voidness meditation for purification of the mind. And then you have a generation of yourself as a simple Chakrasamvara couple: one face and two arms. And then for purification of speech, you imagine three rings of the Sanskrit alphabet at the navel, and they emanate three groups of deities to get rid of obstacles. Then you have the praises – the eight verses for Chakrasamvara and the eight verses for Vajrayogini, the female partner. And then all the mantras, and then some dedication prayers.
So this is a very full practice in and of itself and is the normal, standard thing that everybody does. Then, as I said, in the second stage you can add some pieces before, in the middle, and after that, which will fill it out to the full sadhana.
The Story of Chakrasamvara Subduing Shiva
Now, I prepared some more material here, which we don’t really have time for, which is this whole myth of Buddha – or Vajradhara – emanating as Chakrasamvara in order to subjugate or subdue Shiva. And the most extensive research that’s been done on that is an article written by a Western scholar called Ronald Davidson.
And as I said, we don’t have time to go through the result of all his study of this. But basically, to just summarize it: We find this in Indian yoga tantra. There’s four classes of tantra, but this is one of the yoga tantras, called Tattvasamgraha. That’s where you first find Vajrapani, actually, subjugating Shiva (Shiva’s called Maha Ishvara) and out of compassion forcing them to quiet down, and then giving them initiation, and then bringing them into the mandala.
And then you find this in some later tantra texts in the context of either Vajrapani or Chakrasamvara. But it’s only in one of the early twelfth-century Sakya masters, called Dragpa Gyaltsen, that you find the full form of this myth – so pretty much from Tibet – in which Shiva, called Maha Ishvara, and his consort Uma are on top of Mount Meru, and they have emanations in the twenty-four sacred places, and they’re all eating human flesh and drinking human blood and acting in all sorts of strange and forceful ways. And then Vajradhara emanates in a form of Chakrasamvara, looking exactly the same as Shiva looked – with the ashes on the body, and the whole bit, piled up hair – and acting in the same type of way in the tsog (tshogs), the ganachakra gatherings of the blood and the flesh, like in the form of the inner offering (during the tsog you have a little bit of alcohol, a little bit of meat). So they act in a similar type of way in order to, in a sense, gain the confidence and trust of these deities and the followers. And then, in a sense, giving them empowerment to overcome the excesses of this type of behavior and these strong actions that they were doing. Out of compassion giving them initiation, bringing them to clear-light mind, making them Buddhas and so on. And to represent all of that, the various figures in the Chakrasamvara mandala are standing on top of, trampling, various forms of Shiva and Uma, or Parvati.
So all of this has to be understood – according to Davidson – in the context of what was going on in India, the rivalry between the Shiva form of Hinduism and Buddhism. Each system, in a very Indian type of way, was trying to incorporate the other system within it. So the Hindu systems made Buddha into one of the incarnations, one of the avatars of Vishnu. So if you practice Buddha’s teachings, very good: you’re actually practicing a form of Hinduism. Very clever. So no problem, the diversity. And the Buddhists in this way brought all these various Hindu deities and so on into Buddhism – but with the general context of compassion that will bring them to enlightenment and so on – and then included them in our mandalas.
So although this might be very interesting from a sociological or anthropological point of view, it’s important not to get diverted away from the actual practice and into these sort of questions. But just be aware that there was this dynamic between the Hindu and Buddhist practices, particularly in terms of the tantra systems in both of them. So the Buddhists would say, according to this myth, that: “Well, we have this drinking blood and the human bones and eating flesh and the ashes on the body and stuff like that. We just adopted that from the Shiva practices in order to make them feel more comfortable and then transform it into a way of attaining enlightenment.” This is the apology. But for us I think that’s a bit irrelevant.
So in summary: The main point, why you want to get involved with Chakrasamvara practice, is to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha because you have such strong compassion for everybody. And to do that you need the nonconceptual cognition of voidness with bodhichitta and a blissful mind and appear in forms that will help others. And the most efficient way of doing this is to access the subtlest level of mental activity, the clear-light mind. One way of accessing that is through increasing levels of bliss experienced within the central channel, which will get the winds more subtle and get the mind more subtle. And Chakrasamvara has the most details on that, particularly with the tummo, the inner heat practice, on the complete stage and various visualization practices on the generation stage to help us to get increasing blissful states of mind.
So that’s our general introduction to the Chakrasamvara system. And please remember that unless you have as your basis very strong three principal paths – renunciation, bodhichitta, understanding of voidness – to just visualize yourself in the form of one of these figures and recite mantra and do all of these things is just a cause for being reborn as a hungry ghost in the form of one of these deities. So it’s very, very important that it’s not in terms of this lifetime and having some sort of trip to Buddhist Disneyland and playing with your vajra and bell as if you were some great yogi. It has to be with bodhichitta, dedicated to achieving enlightenment to benefit everyone, with a clear understanding of the voidness of what you’re doing (don’t make it into some big ego trip), and of course all within the context of keeping all the vows, the ethical discipline, which is the basis for this. And with that and the inspiration of the teachers and the lineage, proceed along the path.
Thank you very much.
Questions and Answers
Now, we have run well past time, so although it might be nice for questions, I don’t know if that’s okay. Questions? No questions? Five minutes? Okay. I’ll have to control myself not to give just one answer in five minutes.
The Clear-Light Mind
Participant: Could you please clarify something about the clear-light mind. In its natural state it’s not absorbed in nonconceptual understanding of voidness, and it doesn’t experience bliss, so you have to teach it, so to say?
Alex: Right, you have to train that subtlest level of mind to have that understanding of voidness and to generate it as a blissful awareness. And you train it by gaining this blissful awareness and the understanding of voidness on grosser levels of mind first and then, either through wind yoga or bliss yoga, get to that subtlest stage in meditation.
Criteria for Classifying Tantras
Participant: The criteria by which we divide systems into Guhyasamaja side and Chakrasamvara side – is it the same criteria that has to do with yidam and dakini practices, or are those two different classifications?
Alex: Yidam and dakini practices are something quite separate. You don’t really speak of that type of division within the Gelug tradition. In the classification system as defined by Tsongkhapa, father tantra, like Guhyasamaja, has the most detail and the main emphasis on illusory-body practice. Illusory body practice is done with the energy winds, so Guhyasamaja has a great detail on that. And mother tantra [like Chakrasamvara] has the most emphasis on the clear-light practices and that’s referring specifically to gaining the clear-light practice through these increasing levels of bliss through tummo. Both of those are yidam practices, and there isn’t anything specific called a dakini practice in Gelugpa.
What’s the Point of the Various Yidam Forms?
Participant: We were talking about how it doesn’t really matter whether a deity has four arms or two arms. That’s irrelevant. But at the same time, in tantric systems we have deities who have twenty-four arms and several faces, and we have sixty-two deities in the external mandala and sixty two deities in the body mandala. So what’s the point behind all this variety? Is it just to overuse our brains?
Alex: No. In each of these systems, whether it’s four arms or two arms or six or twenty-four or thirty-four, each of them represents something different in terms of what it purifies, in terms of a different type of attainment, and so on. But when you work with many, many different systems, you soon realize that you can represent method and wisdom and the six paramitas and things in so many different ways. The main point of it is that it’s an aid, something that helps us to keep in mind what they represent. The final aim of it is not be able to visualize six or twenty-four arms; the aim is to have simultaneously in our awareness the things that they represent.
And in Chakrasamvara the sixty-two deities in the external mandala are in order to be able to control – tame, I should say – the energies externally. And in the body mandala, they are situated at the external end of the various energy channels throughout the body in order to be able to generate a blissful awareness at the external tip of these channels. Because with the five types of energy winds, the type which goes through the skin, in a sense – the all-pervading one – that’s the most difficult to bring into the central channel. So it is a very specific system to help us to bring those winds which are the most difficult ones into the central channel. So the sixty-two are for a very specific purpose and visualized in very specific places on the body.
Okay. We end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.