The Efficiency of General Tantra: Gelug

[As background, see: The Main Features of Tantra]


Tantra is well known as being a quicker and more efficient method for achieving enlightenment than is sutra. To appreciate tantra and put full enthusiasm into its practice in a realistic manner, it is important to know what makes tantra so special. We can discuss this on several levels, depending on the tantra class and specific tantra. Here, however, let us speak of only three levels:

  1. Tantra in general – common to all four tantra classes
  2. Anuttarayoga tantra in general – common to the main anuttarayoga tantras, such as Guhyasamaja
  3. Kalachakra tantra.

On each level, we shall analyze four reasons for its enhanced speed:

  1. There are closer analogies within the practice.
  2. There is a closer union of method and wisdom.
  3. There is a special basis for voidness used for gaining the understanding of voidness (emptiness).
  4. There is a special level of mental activity used for perceiving voidness.

We shall use as our basis the Gelug presentation of the subject matter, as found in A Grand Presentation of the Stages of Hidden Mantra (sNgags-rim chen-mo) by the 14th-century master Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa). The four-point analysis has been extrapolated from salient points in this text, although Tsongkhapa himself has not structured his discussion in this manner. As a supplement, we shall indicate the featuresue to the explanations given in the non-Gelug systems – Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma – when they significantly differ.

(1) Closer Analogies

The practices of both bodhisattva sutra and general tantra act as causes for reaching the goal of enlightenment, with the attainment of the physical corpuses (Skt. rupakaya, form bodies) and omniscient all-loving mental activity (Skt. dharmakaya) of a Buddha. The causal practices in each, however, resemble the goal to different degrees.

In Sutra

The bodhisattva sutras discuss the two enlightenment-building networks (tshogs-gnyis, the two collections) as causes for achieving a body and mind of a Buddha. These are the networks of positive force (bsod-nams, Skt. punya, merit, positive potential) and deep awareness (ye-shes, Skt. jnana, wisdom, insight). Each is a network in the sense that its constituents connect with and reinforce one another, rather than just accumulate as members of a passive collection.

We build up the two enlightenment-building networks exclusively with a bodhichitta motivation beforehand and a dedication to enlightenment afterward. Otherwise, our constructive (dge-ba, virtuous) actions and meditation on the nature of reality constitute only samsara-building networks of positive force and deep awareness. Such networks serve merely as causes for achieving a body and mind in one of the better rebirth states.

The minimum level of bodhichitta required for our constructive actions and meditation to constitute enlightenment-building networks is a labored (tsol-bcas) state, reached by relying on a line of reasoning. With the attainment of unlabored (rtsol-med) bodhichitta, which arises without such reliance, we become bodhisattvas.

An extensive enlightenment-building network of positive force serves as the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) for the body of a Buddha. An obtaining cause is the item from which we obtain the result. It functions as the natal source (rdzas, natal substance) giving rise to the result as its successor. It ceases to exist simultaneously with the arising of its result. For example, a seed is the obtaining cause for a sprout. Obtaining causes and their results, however, do not need to be forms of physical phenomena. Today’s understanding of a Dharma point, for instance, is the obtaining cause that gives rise to tomorrow’s understanding of it.

Obtaining causes need simultaneously acting conditions (lhan-cig byed-rkyen) in order to give rise to their results. Here, an enlightenment-building network of positive potential requires as a simultaneously acting condition an enormous enlightenment-building network of deep awareness. Likewise, an extensive enlightenment-building network of deep awareness, as the obtaining cause for the mind of a Buddha, requires a vast enlightenment-building network of positive force as its simultaneously acting condition. The pair of enlightenment-building networks is required for achieving either of the two, a body or a mind of a Buddha.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: Logical Pervasions between Objects]

Although the sutra-level causes for enlightenment are somewhat like their results, they are not so similar. For instance, a Buddha’s physical body has thirty-two major features that are indicative of their causes. A Buddha’s long tongue, for example, indicates and represents the type of love with which he or she, in previous lives as a bodhisattva, took care of others like a mother animal licking her young. Working with such causes alone requires three zillion (countless) eons to reach the goal.

General Tantra as the Resultant Vehicle

In general tantra, the obtaining causes for attaining the enlightening body and mind of a Buddha are more analogous to the results we wish to attain. We practice now as if we had already achieved our goals. Because of this feature, tantra, as the “resultant vehicle,” is more efficient for reaching enlightenment.

Tantra practice resembles a dress rehearsal. If we wish to dance in a ballet, we need to attend ballet school first and learn to dance. The obtaining cause, however, that functions as the natal source giving rise to the actual performance as its immediate successor, is the dress rehearsal of the ballet. Likewise, if we wish to practice tantra, we need to learn and develop first the essentials from sutra. Subsequent tantra practice is like the dress rehearsal to combine the essentials to bring us to enlightenment as its immediate successor.

In all classes of tantra, then, we simulate four purified factors (rnam-par dag-pa bzhi) we will have as Buddhas. They are purified of all suffering and the causes of suffering, in the sense that they arise in our experience when we have achieved a true stopping (‘gog-bden, true cessation) of both. The four are:

  1. Purified bodies
  2. Purified environments
  3. Purified manners of experiencing sense objects with enjoyment (longs-spyod)
  4. Purified actions.

We do this by imagining that we have all four factors now. Using our imaginations (dmigs-pa) in these ways acts as a cause to achieve the four purified factors more quickly. Most translators call this process “visualization.” The term, however, is a bit misleading, because the process is not merely visual. It involves the entire scope of our imaginations – imagining sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, feelings, emotions, actions, and so on. Tantra harnesses the power of imagination – an extremely potent tool we all possess.

Purified Bodies

In tantra, we imagine that we have purified bodies like those of one of the Buddha-figures – the many forms in which an enlightening body can appear. As the etymology of yi-dam, the Tibetan word for Buddha-figure, implies, we “bond our minds closely” with them in daily practice in order to reach enlightenment. Thus, we imagine our bodies are transparent, made of clear light, and able to multiply into countless replica bodies, all with the infinite energy and capabilities of those of a Buddha.

Moreover, we do not imagine ourselves as Buddha-figures merely during meditation sessions. We try to maintain mindfulness (dran-pa) on this the entire day. Mindfulness is a subsidiary awareness (sems-byung, mental factor) that accompanies cognition of something. Like a “mental glue,” it prevents our attention from losing its object.

With mindfulness, we maintain both the clarity (gsal-ba) and self-esteem or dignity (nga-rgyal, pride) of the Buddha-figure. Clarity is the mental activity of producing the cognitive appearance of the Buddha-figure, regardless of level of clarity of detail or focus. Self-esteem is the mental activity of labeling “me” on the continuity of the appearance of the figure and feeling that this is who we actually are.

Tsongkhapa emphasized that maintaining mindfulness on the self-esteem of being the figure is more important at first than trying to gain clarity of detail and maintaining mindfulness on the detail. To begin, we need merely achieve a rough clarity of visualization, to serve as the basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi) “me.”

Tantric Transformation of Self-Image

While visualizing ourselves as Buddha-figures, we also imagine that we have the self-images associated with the figures. Many people have negative self-images, for instance as not being good enough or not deserving to be happy or loved. In contrast to such negative self-images, Buddha-figures imply positive ones.

In Buddhism, negative and positive do not denote bad and good. Rather, they imply destructive and constructive. Destructive means ripening into problems and suffering, in this life and future ones, through a process of leaving a legacy (sa-bon, seed, tendency) and habit (bag-chags, instinct) on our mental continuums. Constructive means ripening into happiness through a similar process.

Buddha-figure practice resembles, in a sense, a type of “mental judo” with which we work with the tendencies of our minds to project self-images. Instead of projecting negative ones, we project positive self-images instead. Each Buddha-figure has a positive self-image associated with it. For example, Avalokiteshvara represents being a warm, loving, and compassionate person; Manjushri (‘Jam-dpal dbyangs), being someone clearheaded and able to understand everything. We practice with one or another figure in order to emphasize a specific positive self-image, in accordance with our dispositions and needs.

Moreover, each Buddha-figure represents not only a certain aspect of a fully enlightened being, but also the entirety of an enlightened state. Thus, practice of just one Buddha-figure is sufficient for reaching enlightenment. Most practitioners, however, work with a variety of Buddha-figure systems to gain the advantages of the special features of each.

The tantric method of transforming our self-images is not simply using “the power of positive thinking.” The change of self-image derives from understanding the Buddha-nature factors and the voidness of ourselves, these factors, and all self-images we may have.

The Voidness of Self-Images

From the point of view of our Buddha-natures, we all have the potentials for becoming Buddhas, as the self-images of the Buddha-figures represent. Moreover, negative and positive self-images are equally devoid of existing in impossible ways, as do we and our potentials. The impossible manner is with true existence (bden-grub, truly established existence).

According to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka theories, true existence means existence established by the power of something on the side of a phenomenon and not merely by mental labeling alone. Truly established existence is thus equivalent to existence established by self-nature (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa, inherent existence). This means that when valid cognition scrutinizes the superficial truth of something, it finds, on the side of the scrutinized phenomena, the referent “thing” (btags-don) corresponding to the name or label for the phenomenon. This is also equivalent to saying that phenomena have their existence established by individual defining characteristic marks (rang-mtshan-gyis grub-pa), which are findable on the side of the phenomena.

For example, we may feel that there is something inherently bad or good inside us that, by its own power, makes us exist as bad or good persons. We and any self-images we may have are equally devoid of existing in that manner, because there is no such thing as truly established existence – it is an impossible manner in which anything could exist.

Moreover, everything is devoid of all four extreme modes of impossible existence:

  1. True existence – the eternalist position
  2. Total non-existence – the nihilist position
  3. Both – from one point of view eternalist, from another nihilist
  4. Neither – from one point of view, a manner of existence that is not eternalist; from another viewpoint, one that is not nihilist either.

If asked how self-images actually exist, all we can say, according to the uniquely Gelug-Prasangika view, is that, conventionally (tha-snyad), self-images do exist, but simply by virtue of mental labeling or imputation alone (btags-pa ‘dog-tsam-gyis grub-pa). More fully, they exist as merely what the words and concepts for them refer to (btags-chos), based merely on a valid imputation of them on a valid basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi). There are no such things as Buddha-nature factors, or self-images representing them, findable inherently inside us that by their own powers, or in conjunction with our thinking about them, makes us good persons. Nevertheless, we may validly label them on our mental continuums based on our experience.

We may likewise validly label negative potentials and negative self-images based on the experiences of our mental continuums. Nevertheless, negative aspects derive from fleeting stains (glo-bur-gyi dri-ma) that temporarily obscure our Buddha-natures – such as confusion about how we, others, and everything around us exist. The fleeting stains are removable with accurate understanding of reality, specifically with non-conceptual cognition of voidness. On the other hand, the continuities of our Buddha-natures go on forever, with no beginning and no end. Therefore, positive self-images can permanently replace negative ones.

Buddha taught not to accept these points on the foundation of blind faith. Accurate understanding of reality, corroborated by valid inferential cognition (rjes-dpag tshad-ma) and valid straightforward cognition (mngon-sum tshad-ma), supports these truths and both dislodges and abolishes the confused belief that negative qualities are our true natures. Thus, a deep understanding of the four noble truths (four truths of life) – true problems, their true causes, their true stopping, and the true pathway minds that bring that about – is essential for a correct tantric transformation of self-image.

In the context of our discussion, we may formulate the four noble truths as:

  1. Uncontrollably recurring rebirth is the true problem
  2. Belief in truly existent negative self-images, based on confusion about reality, is the true cause
  3. Removal forever of this fleeting stain from our Buddha-natures is a true stopping
  4. Non-conceptual cognition of voidness and of our Buddha-natures is the true pathway mind.


Each Buddha-figure also has one or more associated mantras. Mantras are sets of syllables and, often, additional Sanskrit words and phrases, all of which represent enlightening speech. While repeating the mantras of a Buddha-figure, we imagine we have the abilities to communicate perfectly to everyone the complete means for eliminating suffering and reaching enlightenment.

Mantras also shape our breath, and consequently our subtle energy-winds, enabling us to bring the winds under control for use in meditation practice. From a Western viewpoint, they have certain vibration frequencies that affect our energies and, consequently, our states of mind.

Purified Environments – Mandalas

We also imagine that we have the purified environments of the Buddha-figures. Mandalas represent those environments. They are three-dimensional palaces, with the Buddha-figures in their centers and often many secondary figures around – some male, some female, some solitary, and some as couples. Two-dimensional depictions of mandalas, whether painted on cloth or made from colored powders, are like architectural blueprints for the palaces.

We imagine that we are not just the central figure, but all the Buddha-figures of the mandala. We also envision complete purified lands (dag-zhing) surrounding the palaces, where everything is conducive for reaching enlightenment through tantra practice.

Purified Manner of Enjoyment

Moreover, we imagine that we are able to experience sense objects with enjoyment in the way that Buddhas do, untainted by any confusion (zag-med-kyi bde-ba, uncontaminated happiness). Normally, we experience things tainted with confusion. When we listen to music at home, for instance, we may be unable to enjoy it purely without fretting that our sound systems are not as good as those of our neighbors. We may be attached to good food and if we eat something delicious, we are greedy for more.

If we suffer from low self-esteem, we may feel that we do not deserve to be happy or that we are not worthy enough to receive affection or anything nice from others. Even if others give us something of good quality, we may feel that they lack sincere feelings and are only patronizing us. Alternatively, we may emotionally anesthetize ourselves so that unless the sense experience is extreme, we do not feel anything. In extreme cases, we may even feel that if we were to enjoy something nice, it might be taken from us – like a bone from a dog – and we might be punished.

If we are Buddhas, however, we are able to enjoy everything without such confusion. In tantra, then, with the high self-esteem and dignity of a Buddha-figure, we imagine that we are able to enjoy things purely. We do this, for example, when we receive the offerings we make to ourselves in the tantric rituals (bdag-bskyed mchod-pa).

All Tibetan traditions of tantra include, however, making offerings to the Buddhas and to all limited beings. When doing so, we imagine that we are able to bring them purified happiness, without us feeling any confusion about that. Often, when we give something to others, we feel that what we gave was inadequate and that they did not really enjoy it. Our negative attitudes reinforce our low self-esteem and, afterwards, we may even regret our gifts. In tantra, on the other hand, we imagine giving the best things possible and we feel that they bring purified pleasure to their recipients. This reinforces the positive self-image and high self-esteem of being a Buddha-figure, able to fulfill everybody’s wishes for happiness. To counter stinginess, we imagine that we have an infinite supply of offerings that will never run out. After making offerings, we rejoice and feel happy about our giving, without any confusion or doubts.

Whether making offerings to the Buddhas, to all limited beings, or to ourselves, we need to understand the voidness of everything and everyone involved. In other words, we understand that the giver, the recipients, the objects enjoyed, the acts of enjoying them, and the happiness felt are devoid of existing in impossible ways. Thus, we do not inflate or “make a big deal” about our own or others’ happiness. We do not experience it in dualistic manners; nor do we cling to it. Such practice trains us to focus on voidness with a blissful awareness, without having the happiness that we experience be out of harmony with our understanding.

Purified Actions

We also imagine that we are able to act as Buddhas do. Buddhas act by exerting an enlightening influence (‘phrin-las, Buddha-activity) on others. This requires no conscious effort on their parts. By the very way Buddhas are, they spontaneously accomplish all aims (lhun-grub), in the sense that they inspire (byin-rlabs, bless) everyone receptive to their help. This works in a manner similar to charisma.

Buddhas exert four general types of enlightening influence:

  1. Calming and quieting others around them (zhi, pacification)
  2. Stimulating others to grow, to have clearer minds, warmer hearts, be more engaged in positive activities, and so on (rgyas, increase)
  3. Bringing others under their power to go in a positive direction and helping others to unify and gain power from their own internal forces, also to go in a positive direction (dbang, power)
  4. Stopping dangerous situations in which others may hurt themselves or be hurt by others (drag-pa, wrathful). The forceful (wrathful) Buddha-figures, surrounded by flames, represent this last type of enlightening influence.

While visualizing ourselves with the bodies of Buddha-figures, in the purified environments of mandala palaces, and repeating mantras, we imagine emitting rays of light and tiny figures, influencing others in the four ways. We do this while understanding the voidness of us, those we influence, our acts of influencing them, and the influence we exert. None of them exists in impossible ways. Thus, we counter the low self-esteem of feeling inadequate and powerless, while not inflating our egos.

Mudras, Mantras, and Samadhis

Each Buddha-figure represents the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha and the inseparability of the three. Therefore, when visualizing ourselves performing actions as Buddha-figures, such as making offerings, we simultaneously do something physical, verbal, and mental with our ordinary bodies to integrate the three.

  1. With our bodies, we make a specific mudra (phyag-rgya) for each action. A mudra is a hand-gesture, often with a complex arrangement of intertwined fingers.
  2. With our speech, we recite aloud a specific mantra for each action. The mantra is usually a Sanskrit phrase or sentence, with special syllables added at the beginning and end, such as om for body, ah for speech, and hum for mind.
  3. With our minds, we focus in a specific samadhi (ting-nge-‘dzin) for each action. A samadhi is a state of total absorption, with full concentration on an object or on a state of mind. The action may entail samadhi on:
    • A visualization, such as offering flowers
    • What the visualization represents, such as flowers represent offering our knowledge to benefit others, or
    • An understanding, such as the inexhaustibility of the objects we offer or on their voidness.

Validity of the Method

We may ask the question, “Isn’t it a lie or distorted cognition (log-shes) to think we are Buddhas, when in truth we are not?” This is not self-deception, however, because all beings have the complete set of factors within that allow them to become Buddhas; in other words, everyone has Buddha-nature. We all have the same reality of mind, as well as the mental activity of simultaneously producing and perceiving cognitive appearances (gsal-rig, clarity and awareness). We all have a certain amount of positive force and deep awareness, which, if properly dedicated, will allow us to overcome limitations and realize our potentials to become Buddhas and be able to benefit others most effectively.

Therefore, as tantric practitioners, we think “I am a Buddha” only within the context of being fully aware that we are not yet enlightened. We do not pretentiously think that right now we omnisciently know the most skillful advice to give each being in the universe to help overcome his or her specific difficulty of the moment. Rather, we are labeling “me” as a Buddha on the future continuities of our mental continuums.

More fully, as properly qualified practitioners of tantra, we necessarily already have:

  • Accurate understanding of (1) what is enlightenment, (2) what are the Buddha-nature factors allowing it, and (3) how these factors, enlightenment, and we exist
  • Firm conviction that we have the complete factors of Buddha-nature within us now
  • Firm conviction, based on accurate understanding of the four noble truths and voidness, that not only is enlightenment possible, but also that our own enlightenment is possible
  • Accurate understanding of and firm conviction in the complete methods in tantra for achieving that enlightenment
  • Unshakable bodhichitta motivation and resolve to benefit all beings as much as is possible and, to be able to do that, to achieve enlightenment through those methods
  • Our Buddha-nature factors activated by having properly received a tantric empowerment from a qualified tantric master
  • A healthy relation with that tantric master, as a source of steady inspiration and reliable guidance to follow the tantra path correctly
  • Firm resolve to keep as purely as possible the vows we have taken at the empowerment.

If we are missing any of these indispensable prerequisites, our tantric practice of imagining ourselves as Buddha-figures is not only distorted; it may also be psychologically and spiritually dangerous. If, however, we have the complete set of prerequisite states of mind, then based on the future continuities of our Buddha-nature factors developing into those of enlightened beings, we can validly label ourselves now as Buddhas. Thus, we are using mental labeling as a method to reach enlightenment, without fooling ourselves that we have already achieved it.

Multiple Limbs and Faces

Some people find difficulty in relating to the multiple arms, faces, and legs that the various Buddha-figures have. These features, however, possess many levels of purpose, meaning, and symbolism.

If, for instance, we try to be aware of twenty-four things abstractly at the same time, we may find this achievement quite difficult. If, however, we imagine we have twenty-four arms, each of which represents one of the items, the graphic picture enables us to be more easily aware of the twenty-four simultaneously.

Moreover, since the arms, faces, and legs have many levels of symbolism, not just one, the process of imagining that we are multi-faced, multi-limbed Buddha-figures is like opening up the lenses of our minds. By helping us to be aware of many things simultaneously, it acts as a cause for developing the omniscient all-loving awareness (rnam-mkhyen) of a Buddha.

(2) Closer Union of Method and Wisdom

In Sutra

On the sutra level, method is conventional bodhichitta and wisdom is the discriminating awareness of voidness. These are the foundations for strengthening and expanding the enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness, the obtaining causes for achieving the body and mind of a Buddha.

Conventional bodhichitta focuses on our future enlightenment with two accompanying intentions (‘dun-pa): to achieve that enlightenment and to benefit all beings by means of that. Discriminating awareness of voidness focuses on an absolute absence (med-dgag, nonimplicative negation) of true existence, with the understanding that there is no such manner of existence. Nothing has its existence and conventional identity established by the power of some defining characteristic marks inherently findable within it. Thus, in sutra, the main causes for a body and a mind of a Buddha have different ways of cognitively taking their objects (‘dzin-stangs). On the most basic level, one is with the wish to attain something; the other is with the understanding that there are no such things as certain impossible modes of existence.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: Relationships with Objects]

A moment of cognition cannot have two different manners of cognitively taking an object. Because of that, conventional bodhichitta and the discriminating awareness of voidness cannot occur simultaneously in one moment of cognition. We can only practice the two within the context of each other.

Practicing cognition “A” within the context of cognition “B” means to generate “B” during the moment immediately preceding “A.” The momentum or legacy (sa-bon, seed) of “B” continues during “A,” although “B” itself no longer occurs. In a sense, the momentum of “B” flavors “A,” without “A” and “B” occurring simultaneously. This is the way sutra practice combines method and wisdom.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: The Union of Method and Wisdom: Gelug and Non-Gelug]

Buddha-Figures as Method in General Tantra

The enlightening body and mind of a Buddha share the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig, one by nature), in the sense that they are two facts about the same phenomenon. As two facts about a Buddha, both are simultaneously the case in each moment of a Buddha’s experience. In a colloquial manner of speaking, they “come together in one package.”

Moreover, a Buddha’s mind and body are inseparable (dbyer-med) from each other. In other words, the two occur simultaneously in each moment, in the sense that if one is the case, so is the other. The body of a Buddha cannot be present without the mind of that Buddha, and vice versa.

[See: Logical Pervasions between Objects]

The most efficient means for achieving the simultaneous occurrence of an enlightening body and mind is to practice in one moment of cognition the causes for both. To accomplish this aim, tantra takes as method not only conventional bodhichitta, but also having the body of a Buddha-figure. To have such an enlightening body is the actual method, motivated by bodhichitta and dedicated to enlightenment, that will enable us to benefit all others. We cannot benefit everyone as fully as a Buddha does with our ordinary bodies, which are limited in innumerable ways.

Correspondingly, wisdom in tantra is the discriminating awareness of the voidness of ourselves in terms of being Buddha-figures, and not simply the voidness of ourselves in terms of the aggregate factors (Skt. skandha) that constitute our ordinary bodies and minds.

Voidness and the Basis for a Voidness

Voidness is an absolute absence of true existence. It is the deepest truth about how something exists. As an unchanging fact about something, the voidness of something cannot exist independently by itself; it must always have a basis – that “something.” In other words, the basis for a voidness (stong-gzhi) is the specific object that is devoid of existing in impossible ways.

Note that because each basis for a voidness is individual, the voidness of each basis is likewise individual. Associated with each basis, then, is an individual instance of a voidness. All voidnesses are equally voidnesses, but the voidness of one basis is not the voidness of another basis. This resembles the fact that all noses are equally noses, but my nose is not your nose.

Moreover, any basis for a voidness must also have aspects (rnam-pa), one of which a mind makes appearances of when it cognizes the basis. If the object is physical, for instance, the aspect may be its form, sound, smell, taste, or physical sensation. If the object is a way of being aware of something, for instance love, the appearance of it in a cognition may be the emotional feeling of it that arises.

Two Truths

The appearance of the basis for a voidness and its actual voidness are two inseparable facts about the same object. They are called the two truths (bden-gnyis, two levels of truth) about an object. Both are true and are inseparably the case, regardless of whether one moment of mind perceives them simultaneously.

  1. The superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truth) about something is how it appears, namely:
    • What it appears to be
    • How it appears to exist.
  2. The deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth) about the same phenomenon is how it actually exists.

General tantra takes as method and wisdom the two truths about ourselves as Buddha-figures – the appearance of the Buddha-figure as a basis for voidness and its actual voidness.

Method and Wisdom in General Tantra Having One Manner of Cognitively Taking an Object

Conceptual and non-conceptual cognitions of voidness entail two phases, both of which occur during a meditation session on voidness:

  1. Total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, meditative equipoise) – cognition of voidness that is like space,
  2. Subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, post-meditation, subsequent realization) – cognition of voidness that is like an illusion.

The focal object (dmigs-yul) during the total absorption phase is the deepest truth about something, its voidness. The superficial truths about it do not appear at that time. During the subsequent attainment phase, the focal object is the superficial truth about the object, while its deepest truth does not appear. The presence of an appearance of true existence and the absolute absence of true existence cannot appear simultaneously in one moment of cognition, whether conceptual or non-conceptual. They are mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, the two truths remain inseparable.

The situation resembles sitting on the ground floor of a house and seeing through the window a person walk past. Although only the top half of the person appears to go by, this does not mean that the person is missing a bottom half. The limitation derives from the side of the perspective, not from the side of the person.

Thus, although the appearance of a Buddha-figure and its voidness, as method and wisdom, remain always inseparable, total absorption cognition of voidness focuses only on wisdom. Subsequent attainment cognition of voidness focuses only on method.

As in the case with bodhichitta, cognition of wisdom can only be held by the force of an immediately preceding moment of cognition of method, and vice versa. Wisdom and method are not simultaneous. Nevertheless, cognition of the appearance of a Buddha-figure as method still avoids the shortcoming of bodhichitta. This is because the manners with which wisdom and method cognitively take their objects during the total absorption and subsequent attainment phases are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are equivalent manners. Both are ways of cognitively taking voidness as an object.

More specifically, the manners with which wisdom and method cognitively take an object here are two facts about or ways of describing the same phenomenon – a manner of cognitively taking an object – that can be logically isolated from each other and conceptually specified as two different conceptually isolated items (ngo-bo gcig ldog-pa tha-dad). The two equivalent manners of cognitively taking an object are with the discriminating awareness that:

  1. There is no such thing as true existence
  2. The appearance of what resembles true existence does not correspond to anything real.

It is in this fashion, then, that general tantra practices method and wisdom with one manner of cognitively taking an object, and thus achieves a closer union of the two than sutra practice does.


  • All bases for voidness are inseparable from their voidness.
  • Their appearance and voidness are two inseparable truths about them.
  • Although focus on both can only alternate, still the manners of cognitively taking them during total absorption and subsequent attainment are not contradictory: they are equivalent to each other.

Although these points are valid for all phenomena; nevertheless, focusing on a table or on our ordinary bodies as bases for voidness cannot serve as a union of method and wisdom. We can only help others in the enlightening manner of a Buddha with the body of a Buddha-figure. Moreover, focusing on conventional bodhichitta and its voidness will also not serve as a union of method and wisdom, because the two still have contradictory manners of cognitively taking their objects.

Even if we are not yet able to focus on our appearances as Buddha-figures and on their voidness with one manner of cognitively taking an object, still we have bodies while we are focusing on their voidness. When tantra commentaries state that the mind understanding voidness appears as a Buddha-figure, this not only means that the mind cognizing voidness gives rise to an appearance of a Buddha-figure as the basis for that voidness, while maintaining an understanding of its voidness. It also means, on a simpler level, that the body of the person focusing on voidness appears as a Buddha-figure, whether or not the person cognizes it at that moment.

[For a more advanced discussion, see: The Union of Method and Wisdom: Gelug and Non-Gelug]

(3) Special Basis for Voidness

The next reason why tantra is faster than sutra is that the basis for voidness it uses is special. It takes, as the basis for voidness meditation, the appearance of the body of a Buddha-figure. Such a basis is special from three points of view.

Compared to most other objects, the appearances of Buddha-figures are:

  • less deceptive,
  • more stable,
  • more subtle.

Buddha-Figures as Less Deceptive

In sutra, we focus on the voidness of a phenomenon or of a person. When we think of the basis for that voidness, for instance, our ordinary bodies, the appearances of the bases that arise in our cognitions – both conceptual and nonconceptual – are produced by minds that are affected by causes for deceptive (‘khrul-snang) or discordant appearance-making (gnyis-snang, dual appearances). In other words, our usual minds make our bodies appear to us as existing in deceptive manners discordant with their deepest truth. For instance, our minds make them appear truly and inherently to exist as fat, ugly, and unlovable. Because of believing that this deceptive manner of existence corresponds to reality, we may feel alienation from our bodies and self-hatred toward them.

In voidness meditation, we think how our bodies do not actually exist in the impossible manners in which they appear to us to exist. It may be an accurate superficial truth that presently we are fat and ugly by the conventional standards of our societies and that no one loves us by our personal conventions of what love means. Nevertheless, we do not truly and inherently exist in those ways, forever, regardless of circumstances and points of view. That is impossible.

While focusing on the voidness of our ordinary bodies – the absolute absence of their existing in impossible manners – disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs, Skt. klesha, afflictive emotions) cannot affect our minds. Nevertheless, the bases for that voidness, our ordinary bodies, are objects that our minds made appear in deceptive ways before our total absorption on their voidness. Because of that, our previous experiences of deceptive appearance-making and disturbing emotions can, in a sense, infect or destabilize our understandings of that voidness. The mechanism is similar to that by which focus on voidness can be within the context of the legacies of previous moments of bodhichitta.

In tantra, on the other hand, we first dissolve all ordinary appearances. We halt our minds’ deceptive appearance-making by starting with the understanding of voidness. Then, within that state of an absolute absence, we imagine that we arise in the forms of Buddha-figures and focus on the voidness of those forms. Thus, the situation differs significantly from meditating on the voidness of our ordinary bodies. In tantra, we already understand voidness and then within the context of voidness, we focus on the bodies of Buddha-figures – things that we have already understood are devoid of true existence. In this way, the appearances of ourselves as Buddha-figures are not as deceptive as the forms of our ordinary bodies would be.

In short, normally when we think of the forms of our ordinary bodies, we emotionally overreact to them as “me” in terms of disturbing feelings and judgments, such as “My body is ugly, I don’t like it,” or “How beautiful I am.” Such disturbing feelings can undermine our understandings of their voidness. Focusing on the voidness of the purified forms of Buddha-figure bodies avoids this danger and disadvantage.

Buddha-Figures as More Stable

When we focus on the voidness of our ordinary bodies in bodhisattva sutra, the bases for that voidness are capricious (fleeting) objects. They are bodies that sometimes feel good, sometimes hurt, and so on. Subject to the unpredictable impulses of karma, they are unstable and noticeably change each time we meditate. They even change during the course of one session – for instance, as our knees begin to ache.

In contrast, each time we try to focus on the voidness of the body of a Buddha-figure, its appearance as the basis for that voidness does not grossly change. The body that appears can perform functions such as helping others – even if only in our imaginations – and in this sense is a nonstatic (impermanent) phenomenon. However, it is a so-called “static” nonstatic phenomenon (rtag-pa shes-bya-ba’i mi-rtag-pa), in the sense that it does not grow old, does not become tired, does not fall ill, and so on. It always remains in the same condition whenever we focus on it in meditation. Thus, Buddha-figures serve as more stable objects than our capricious bodies do for gaining and enhancing the understanding of voidness and for maintaining single-minded concentration on that voidness.

Buddha-Figures as More Subtle

Our ordinary bodies as bases for voidness are gross forms that appear to our eye consciousness. Because they are gross, they appear to us as concrete and solid objects, existing independently of a relationship with the mind. That relationship is as what the mental labels or concepts for them refer to. The truth that they are devoid of existing in such impossible manners is not so obvious.

In general tantra, however, the bodies of the Buddha-figures on which we focus are subtle forms that we see only in our minds’ eyes. Because of their subtlety, it is more obvious that they lack existence independent of what a mind can impute. Thus, it is easier to understand their voidness.

(4) Special Level of Mental Activity

Anuttarayoga tantra analyzes three levels of mental activity (mind): gross, subtle, and subtlest.

  1. The gross level involves the five types of sense consciousness – namely eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body consciousness. It is always nonconceptual.
  2. The subtle level concerns mind consciousness, both conceptual and nonconceptual.
  3. The subtlest level of mind is called “clear light” (‘od-gsal). It is like a laser beam of mental activity. It refers to the basic activity of merely producing and perceiving cognitive appearances, simultaneously, which provides continuity of experience from moment to moment and from one lifetime to the next, even into enlightenment. Clear-light mental activity is exclusively nonconceptual. Only the methods of anuttarayoga bring access to this level of mind.

In sutra and the three lower classes of tantra, nonconceptual cognition of voidness is by valid yogic cognition (rnal-‘byor mngon-sum), which is on the second of the three levels of mental activity, the subtle one. Unlike our usual mental cognition, which arises from the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen) of our mental sensors (yid-kyi dbang-po), yogic cognition arises from a state of combined shamatha (zhi-gnas; calm abiding, mental quiescence) and vipashyana (lhag-mthong, special insight) as its dominating condition. Shamatha is a serenely stilled and settled state of mind, while vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state.

Because conceptual cognition is exclusively with the subtle level of mental activity and clear light cognition is exclusively nonconceptual,

  • conceptual cognition of voidness is exclusively with the subtle level of mind;
  • nonconceptual cognition of voidness may be with either the subtle or the subtlest level of mind.

Therefore, tantra practice in general includes, in its highest class, using a special level of mental activity for nonconceptually cognizing voidness – clear-light mind – although not all classes of tantra use this level.

Concluding Points Concerning Voidness in Sutra and Tanta

Subtle and subtlest mental activity nonconceptually cognize the same voidness, namely voidness as an absolute absence of true existence. Gelug is unique in asserting that conceptual and nonconceptual cognition of voidness also cognize this same voidness. Because of this, both stages of practice in each of the four tantra classes – the yoga with signs (mtshan-bcas-kyi rnal-‘byor) and the yoga without signs (mtshan-med-kyi rnal-‘byor) in the first three classes, and the generation stage (bskyed-rim, development stage) and complete stage (rdzogs-rim, completion stage) in anuttarayoga – have the same understanding of voidness.