Essentials of Tantra in Terms of Hologram Theory
Seattle, Washington, USA, April 2003
Session Three: Preliminaries and Empowerments
This morning we were talking about the meaning of the word “tantra” to get a general introductory picture of it. We saw that there are two meanings – one is the “warp of a loom” upon which all the threads of the themes of practice from sutra are interwoven as the different levels of meaning that the different arms and faces of the Buddha-figures represent. That also is the case with respect to the mandalas – the buildings and environment in which these Buddha-figures live. All the architectural features of them as well have many levels of representation. By visualizing them, we have a method which helps our minds to expand toward the goal of omniscience and also toward the goal of integrating and networking together all the different realizations and factors that we develop on the path.
We also saw the other level of meaning of “tantra” was an “everlasting continuity.” This continuity is referring to the various Buddha-nature factors that will transform into the different corpuses or bodies of a Buddha. These can be discussed from a basis, path, and resultant level, dependent not on the factors themselves, but dependent on the amount of obscuration that prevents them from functioning fully.
To practice tantra we need to have gathered together the threads to weave them together – this is from one side of the meaning of tantra. From the other side – in terms of Buddha-nature factors, these everlasting continuities – we need to energize and activate these Buddha-nature factors. In other words, we need to provide the circumstances for these factors to grow and for eliminating the obscurations. We need to strengthen, for example, our network of positive force. We do that primarily by directing it toward enlightenment with bodhichitta – before, during, and after positive actions, the dedication is very important – and certainly with safe direction as the general direction.
We discussed in a previous evening that safe direction is getting a direction from the third and fourth noble truths primarily: the true stoppings, the true paths that lead to them, and the resultant state that is free of these obscurations that had these true stoppings. We are aiming toward that as indicated by the Buddhas, who have achieved the true stoppings and true paths in total – the third and fourth noble truths – and the Dharma, which is that actual state itself, and the Sangha, who are the aryas, those who have achieved some true stoppings and true paths, not the whole thing. We have causal safe direction, which is gaining that direction – we have to go in that direction – gaining that direction from those who have achieved it already; and there is resultant taking of safe direction, or refuge, which is getting that direction from our own future attainment of the Three Jewels, in other words, the true stoppings and the true paths.
It is that second one [taking of resultant safe direction], which is very important here in not only Mahayana, but also in tantra, because in Mahayana then we are aiming with bodhichitta at our own enlightenments, not the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni, not enlightenment as a universal, general thing, but we’re focusing specifically on our own future enlightened state further down the stream of continuity of our own mental continuums. So in terms of tantra, we are aiming at this resultant tantra, the resultant state, the fully purified state of our own mental continuums with their Buddha-nature factors – the mental continuum is also an everlasting continuity, it is also a tantra – that’s our focus: our individual, specific, personal, enlightenment. That’s important to keep in mind. I really only learned that recently that this was the case. I never knew that, but that was pointed out to me by Doboom Rinpoche, a great lama.
The intention, of course, is – we are motivated by compassion, we want to be able to benefit everybody and eliminate their suffering – and our intention is to reach that state, that future enlightenment. And then what will be the Buddha activity, let’s say the influence that we’re going to exert when we reach that state? It is to benefit all beings. That is the intention, and the intention is to follow that as a path to reach that state. We will benefit others as much as possible as the way to build up more and more positive force to reach that goal. That is very crucial in tantra, because in tantra what we do is not only in general going toward that safe direction, not only going toward our own personal individual attainment of enlightenment, but we imagine that we are there already, by imagining that we already are like a Buddha, based on these Buddha-nature factors that we all have.
We need to weave these threads together and strengthen the positive force of the whole system with safe direction, constructive actions that build up more and more positive force, and renunciation – very important. We need to turn from the whole first two noble truths: suffering and its causes. That refers to ordinary appearances, the ordinary samsaric way that we are, the whole system’s generating a samsaric hologram rather than a nirvanic hologram. We need to renounce that, which means, “I want to be liberated from that. Not only do I want to be liberated from that,” which means a true stopping of that, “but I’m very willing to turn away from that.” It’s that turning away, which is the crucial mental factor that’s involved with renunciation – turn away, “I don’t want to do that. I want to head toward a true stopping of that.”
The far-reaching attitudes are going to strengthen our network of positive force by weaving them together. Also we want to strengthen the network of deep awareness by focusing on voidness as much as we can with whatever level of understanding we have and applying that both conceptually and eventually nonconceptually. In addition, we need to try to strengthen these networks by a healthy relationship with a qualified spiritual master. This is absolutely essential here, because from this healthy relationship with a spiritual master we gain inspiration – that’s usually translated as “blessings,” but that’s an inappropriate translation term from another religion – we gain inspiration – the word literally means an “uplifting,” a spiritual uplifting – which energizes the potentials.
We speak of it now in terms of potentials. We were speaking before with the analogy of the subtlest creative drop that can generate the samsaric type of hologram or a nirvanic type of hologram. In order for it to make that transformation – so that it’s doing the nirvanic one with holograms of Buddha-figures and so on – the whole system needs to be energized, you have to put more energy into it.
What fits in very nicely here is system analysis and systems theory. I forget the technical terms, excuse me. We have an open system, which is what an organic system is, in other words a system in which there is energy, some sort of input coming in and output coming out, like an organism: food and energy goes in and waste products and activity comes out of it. If we have a system like that, which is functioning as a network of many components, then such a system is a – again, I forget the technical word – but the Buddhist jargon word for it is “self-arising,” which means self-organizing. In other words, if you throw a certain amount of energy into the system, then all of a sudden it will reach a transition point and the system will rearrange itself and operate on a higher level – or it could rearrange and devolve and go to a lower state of organization.
A simple example is, you lose your right arm and your whole system reorganizes so that you can use your left arm to do things. But similarly with rebirth, then the whole karmic configuration is going to slightly change. A different energy is going to come foremost and the system is going to rearrange with the aggregate factors of the experience of a dog, or a cockroach, or a human, or whatever. The system will rearrange, the whole system of the five aggregates – really very fascinating when looked at from that point of view. But also we can have the system reorganize – rearrange, this “self-arising” rangchung (rang-byung) in Tibetan – reorganize on an arya level, or on an arhat level, or a Buddha level, a bodhisattva level, all these different levels. A certain amount of energy has to go into that system – input – in order for the output to be on a whole different level.
So, to be able to make progress on the path we need to build up this network of positive force. That is what’s going to energize it. You build up that positive force through all this constructive behavior and meditation and these sorts of things, but you also strengthen the whole system, you energize the system with the healthy relation with a spiritual teacher. Inspiration that comes from that healthy relation with a spiritual teacher is one that causes our disturbing emotions to diminish, not one that stimulates and fosters our disturbing emotions, like attachment and jealousy and all these sort of things. It is very important that the relationship be a healthy one, working within the appropriate parameters, qualifications.
The level that we’ve just been discussing is the level which is common to sutra Mahayana practice. If we go on in terms of tantra practice, then we need to have a firm conviction and belief in the benefits of tantra based on correct understanding of how it works to bring us to enlightenment and how it’s more efficient than the sutra methods alone. Without that understanding and conviction in the tantra method, we don’t really know what we’re doing.
Although there can be a certain energizing of our system based on practicing on the foundation of presumption – in terms of the ways of knowing (blo-rig, lorig), presumption is when we assume that it’s true, and that it will work, and that it’s a good system, based not really on understanding it, “But my teacher said it was so, and I believe my teacher as a valid source of information, so I guess it’s OK,” this type of thing. Although we could proceed like that – proceed on the basis of what in the West would be called “ faith” – nevertheless, that is not the most stable foundation in terms of a valid way of knowing that supports it. Presumption is not a valid way of knowing. There has to be some reason why we presume something to be true, and just to take it on the authority of somebody else without really understanding it is not as stable as understanding it. If we understand what tantra is all about, how it works, and so on, and if in addition we have inspiration from the spiritual teachers and the lineage and so on, that: “All these great masters have followed this method and it has worked,” and “I have Buddha-nature factors just as they do so it could work with me as well if I put in the effort.”
In connection with this, one sort of side point is that in several tantra systems there is the practice of going to a pure land – you want to go to Dakini-land, or some sort of pure land – so that everything will be perfect. This type of pure land practice is something which one has to be very, very careful about, because it can easily degenerate into, “I just want to go to Paradise, where everything will be lovely and nice, and Bambi will be there and it will be like a Disney-perfect world,” but it’s not like that. That’s not the idea. The idea of a pure land – there are many levels of pure land in terms of … the deepest pure land is actually the clear light state of mental activity. That’s the actual pure land, where everything is conducive for being able to reach enlightenment. That’s what a pure land is – everything is conducive for reaching enlightenment. So the ultimate pure land is the clear light state of our own mental activity. If we can stay there, then we’re really in a pure land, that’s a Dharmakaya level. It’s explained of a pure land that on a more Nirmana- and Sambhogakaya level of it, we speak of a state of rebirth, although it’s not quite a samsaric rebirth.
But the point of it is that one goes there and really, really works hard for reaching enlightenment. You don’t just sit around and enjoy yourself. It’s a place where you really work hard. You meditate all the time. Everything is conducive, which means that you don’t have the usual type of samsaric body, so you don’t have to take so much time in being, as Shantideva would say, “ the slave of this body” – you have to take care of it, you have to feed it, you have to put it to sleep, you have to dress it, and you have to make money in order to support it, and you have to go seek partners to give it some sort of sexual stimulus – and all of this stuff – you have to pay taxes, and it’s such a drag having to take care of this type of body that we have, so that Shantideva says we’re really the slave of it, having to take care of it all the time. A pure land is a situation in which we don’t have any of that, because we don’t have the usual type of body. We don’t have to eat, we don’t have to sleep, we don’t have to work, we don’t have to do any of this samsaric stuff. It’s not that we just sit around and have a good time by the swimming pool, but we work in meditation and practice all the time. That is what’s meant by a pure land practice.
We need to have a firm conviction and belief in what actually is tantra practice; what is it working for, how does it work. Even just this little example of what really is a pure land and why would I want to go there, why would I want to achieve that, and in order to put our hearts fully with a valid cognition, a valid way of knowing, into our practice of the path. That is quite important before really jumping into tantra.
We also need to try to strengthen the two networks with our uncommon preliminary practices that are specific to tantra – “uncommon” means not shared with sutra Mahayana. This is what’s usually called “ngondro” (sngon-‘gro) in Tibetan. “Ngon” means “before,” “dro” means “to go,” so it’s “what goes before,” “what comes before.” This is like “preparation.” It’s very interesting what term you use. If you use the word “preliminary,” then you might say, “It’s beginning level and I don’t really want to do that. I’m advanced, so let’s skip these preliminaries and get to the real thing.” If we think of the term more in terms of “preparation” – well, if you want to make a journey you need to prepare, get all your stuff together – then it’s not something that you can do without. It’s something that is very important.
There are many styles of doing these special preliminary practices, which are usually a hundred thousand repetitions of various practices. We often come across the standard practices as outlined in Kagyu or Nyingma, which can be four or five. There are many lists of them, but the most common ones are prostration – it’s usually done together with refuge – and bodhichitta, which would be either counted or not counted as something separate; Vajrasattva, that’s the recitation of the hundred-syllable mantra with purification; mandala offerings; and guru-yoga, which is reciting a verse or a mantra of the spiritual teacher and making a bond – yoga means a bond – with the body, speech, and mind of the teacher, those faculties, to try to gain some inspiration to uplift our potentials.
In the Gelug tradition there are more preliminaries than that. People often think the Gelug has less, but it actually has more. In the Gelug tradition there are nine commonly practiced preliminaries. We have prostration, and then refuge and bodhichitta is counted as a separate one, Vajrasattva, mandala offering, guru-yoga done with the Migtsema (dMigs-brtse-ma), the five-line verse for Tsongkhapa. In addition, we have a practice called Samayavajra, it’s the name of a Buddha-figure, Damtsig-dorjey (Dam-tshig rdo-rje) in Tibetan, which is for purifying any obstacles that might arise from weakening our samaya – “samaya” is an important word that means a close bond, the word “ damtsig” in Tibetan – so you have a close bond with the teacher, a close connection, that’s “damtsig.” Anything that might have sullied that connection, it’s very important to cleanse away, so there’s a mantra that you repeat a hundred thousand times with a visualization of Samayavajra.
There is Bhuji Vajradaka, Zachey-Kadro (Za byed mkha' 'gro), which is a daka – dakas and dakinis – this is a daka that eats away your negative potentials, literally “ za-chey” – it eats. This is a practice in which you have a little burner with some coals and you have white sesame seeds and you burn a hundred thousand times, a hundred thousand little handfuls of these seeds with a mantra into the fire to burn off negative potentials with a visualization that goes with that. Then there is the offering of a hundred thousand water bowls; and then, the ninth one is the making of a hundred thousand tsa-tsas. That’s the most difficult. A “ tsa-tsa” is a little clay tablet – it’s usually translated as “votive tablet,” whatever that means. You have a mold that you put clay into, or the Tibetans would have used mud, and it makes a little clay tablet with a Buddha image on it, and you dry it in the sun. And of course, you have to have a place to store a hundred thousand of these. You don’t throw them in the garbage afterwards or recycle them. So that is certainly the most difficult of the nine preliminaries that are done in Gelug. So it’s more, rather than less in Gelug.
These preliminaries, doing a hundred thousand is just a round number as it were, a lot of people get into numbers, the counting game, but you could also count up to a hundred thousand, that’s not the point here. It’s not an exercise in counting or an exercise in arrogance, “I’ve done so many. How many have you done?” Rather we want to build up more and more positive force to get our system to jump to reorganize on higher levels.
In the non-Gelug traditions, we generally do all these preliminaries together as an event, do them back-to-back, one after another. But the Gelug tradition is one in which one doesn’t do these things like an event, although one could, but most people just do them here and there, as they fit into their own personal schedule of development. It’s the same thing with these three-year retreats in the non-Gelug systems. Basically what it is, is a smorgasbord – you know what a smorgasbord is, where you have a little bit of a lot of different dishes, like a buffet – so it’s sort of like a buffet in which you do the major practices of your lineage – three months of this, two months of that, four months of this and so on – so that you go through the repertoire of the major figures and do the short retreats of each, back-to-back as a three-year event. And you learn to do the rituals of them, and play the musical instruments, and do a bit of yoga and so on. In the Gelug tradition it’s not done that way. In the Gelug tradition you do the short retreats, one at a time, whenever they actually fit into your schedule. So you don’t go thought the whole repertoire and learn it at once, although one could, but it’s not done that way.
There are many different ways of doing these practices. It’s not necessary that it be a hundred thousand, it could be a lot more. In fact for these major practices – like prostration, and safe direction, and bodhichitta, and Vajrasattva, and mandala offering, and the guru-yoga – you continue to do them all the way up to a very advanced stage in the practice, in the sadhanas. “Sadhanas” are the tantra practices – “ sadhana” is Sanskrit and means “to actualize,” so it’s a way of actualizing yourself as a Buddha-figure, or “self-generation” is another term that’s used for it. In these practices, in which you go through like an opera of visualization, the sadhanas [are like] the script, and you go through the script, and you generate the holographic opera of different points. And in those points you always have these preliminaries as part of it, these preparatory practices, Vajrasattva and so on. During the course of the sadhana, in the appropriate time, you’ll be doing voidness meditation, bodhichitta meditation, and all these different meditations.
It’s interesting also the way that one practices in tantra, and this I think is quite important to know, especially when you do a ritual as a group practice. In the rituals – this is why I’m talking about these sadhanas – at various points that are there, that you’re doing – generating compassion, love, etc. – and during the sadhana itself, we don’t actually go through the lines of reasoning to build up these states. You don’t do anything like analytical meditation on voidness or stuff like that.
The point is that we need to have sufficient familiarity that we can just generate the state based on reminding ourselves. You’ve worked a lot with these lines of reasoning to generate bodhichitta – the seven-part cause and effect, everybody has been my mother, and so on – you’ve worked through four-point analysis and other things from voidness meditation, so that you’re really familiar with it and so you just have to read the words in the sadhana and maybe take a few seconds and you’ve got it, you’re able to go there, generate that state of mind and actually feel it. This is another reason why tantra practice is rather advanced.
If we’re not able to do that, then our practice of sadhana – particularly if we’re doing it out loud – degenerates into chorus practice of singing without much going on. Although of course there is benefit from choral reading and following a ritual without any meaning being associated to it – in terms of continuity, calming down, being part of a community, these sort of things – and one must not denigrate that; it does have a place and a benefit. Nevertheless, we can gain much more benefit from actually doing it with meaning. The way that the meditation is done is to remind yourself of this state of mind, having worked on it before in a more analytic type of meditation, so that in the sadhana you’re just able to actually go there.
So that’s the ngondro, the special preliminaries. Then we need to have an empowerment, sometimes translated as “initiation,” but “empowerment” is much closer to the term. The Sanskrit term has the idea of “sprinkling” associated with it – it’s both “planting” seeds and “watering” them. The Tibetan word, “wang” (dbang) actually means “empower,” so empowering these Buddha-nature factors. Either we water them, strengthen them, and plant new factors that will supplement them, or we empower them.
The main purpose of an empowerment is to activate the potentials of Buddha-nature. We’ve added more and more energy into the system through the preliminaries, the preparation – the ones that are common to sutra and the ones that are uncommon – and we have this relation with a spiritual teacher, especially the one that’s conferring the empowerment, so that there’s inspiration as well, which is going to help energize the system. The empowerment ritual itself is going to activate those potentials so that they can really start to grow and also purify some obstacles or obscurations. Therefore, just being there and attending is not really the optimal level of receiving the empowerment.
You can say, well, you do have mental continuums so there’s some influence, “It’s not as though we’re a rock or a chair that is there at the empowerment, so there’s some influence,” but the main thing that we need in an empowerment is to have a conscious experience during the ritual. We’re not talking about some mystical experience with French horns in the background and rainbows and stuff like that. We’re talking about a conscious experience of an understanding of voidness or of Buddha-nature – in the Gelug system it’s of voidness, in the other systems there’s more emphasis on Buddha-nature – based on prior study and practice, and induced more strongly by the ambience of the empowerment, the ritual, and inspiration from our belief in the qualities of the master conferring it.
Whatever level that our understanding of voidness is, we need to bring that to the fore during the empowerment when it says, “Now imagine you have a blissful awareness of voidness” – what’s called “inseparable voidness and bliss” – at various points during the empowerment. That is really quite crucial, because doing that in that ambience with that inspiration and the whole scene going on around us, if there’s sufficient preparation, then that will activate these potentials. That is really the key to what an empowerment is and why we need that ambience that is created there and the presence of the great spiritual master who inspires us.
If the empowerment is by somebody who doesn’t inspire us, again, it’s much weaker, it doesn’t really work so much. So that inspiration and if it’s more strongly based on confident belief in the qualities of the master, understanding of the tantra practice, it’s not just hearsay, “I hear that that’s a pretty good guru, but I’ve never met the person before,” but having some acquaintance with this teacher, or with people who have been acquainted with this teacher, is really important here.
Also there is no receiving of an empowerment without the taking of vows. This is emphasized very much. So the empowerment also is an occasion for taking the various sets of vows, or reaffirming them, purifying them if we have weakened them before. If we speak in terms of the Gelug tradition, we need some basis of lay vows. That usually is not just the refuge vows, but very often there’s the five lay precepts. You don’t have to take them all by the way, one will do – obviously more than one is better, but some basis of lay vows. Then, within all four classes of tantra – there are four classes of tantra, different categories and styles of practice – in all four of them we take the bodhisattva vows, and within the two higher classes of tantra we take the tantric vows. The four classes are kriya, charya, yoga, and anuttarayoga tantras, and in the two higher ones, yoga and anuttarayoga tantra – yoga and highest yoga tantra – we also take the tantric vows.
The vows are important because they give a shape to the development of the potentials. To awaken these Buddha-nature potentials and develop them more and more, and remove more and more of the obscurations from them, you need to set certain limits which will shape their growth, beyond which we will not go. See, “limit” and “boundary” always sounds like a negative word, doesn’t it? Something we want to rebel against. Better to say we give a shape to it. You want to set a shape and, “I’m not going to go beyond this shape into amorphous vague-land.” For instance, that shape might be – in terms of tantra vows – to do voidness meditation every day, “I’m not going to go beyond that, because if I really want to shape the way that it’s growing. I need to really keep it within the bounds of the understanding of voidness.” We need to have repeated familiarity; otherwise that hologram of that understanding isn’t going to appear. You have to grease the pathway, in a sense, more and more with this understanding of voidness, so that eventually, even without effort, it’s going to activate.
In terms of the bodhisattva vows, “I’m not going to praise myself and put down others because of attachment to fame, and love, and attention, and all that sort of stuff.” “I’m the greatest. Everybody else is no good, so come to me!” – this type of advertising. That would be very inappropriate, because that is not only very ego-based, but also people become suspicious if they’r e in the least bit savvy, “What’s behind this person trying to sell themselves so much?” “I’m the greatest bodhisattva, come to me. I will help you, or your money back guaranteed.” “Come for a Kalachakra initiation and we will give you free, at no extra charge, a Chenrezig initiation at the end. Everybody else will just give you the plain initiation by itself.” We don’t want to advertise like that, do we? It would be a bit suspect. So these vows are very, very important.
These are the basic features of empowerment. There is a lot more that can be said, but I think that’s sufficient. Since I know that many people will be considering taking an empowerment soon here, perhaps there may be some questions. I should also point out there are three types of ceremonies that often are indiscriminately all translated as “initiation,” but they’re really quite different.
There is the – let’s use the Tibetan words – wang, that’s the actual empowerment. This empowers you to visualize yourself as a Buddha-figure, basically. It activates Buddha-nature potentials and now we can visualize ourselves as a Buddha-figure, the self-generation. Without it, then one can do so-called inspirational practices or devotional practices with Buddha-figures in front of you, but you can’t actually visualize yourself as one – anybody can visualize anything they want, but the point is how effective will it be, and the empowerment will make it effective.
Then there is the jenang (rjes-snang). “Jenang” is sometimes translated as “permission,” but that’s only translating the second syllable of it. The first syllable means “subsequent.” So it’s subsequent permission, subsequent, after the empowerment, subsequent to the empowerment. Serkong Rinpoche said that it’s like the empowerment gives you a sword and the subsequent permission is like sharpening the sword. In those type of ceremonies there’s a gaining of inspiration and uplifting of body, speech, and mind and all together of the Buddha-figure. It’s not with a mandala that’s laid out, usually a drawing or a sand mandala. It’s not with red protection strings; it’s not with the red ribbon that you wear on your forehead as a blindfold. You can tell whether it’s a wang or a jenang by the paraphernalia that’s used during the ritual. In the Gelug tradition, jenangs are usually given with a torma, this cake made of tsampa, barley grain with a little picture, a painting of the Buddha-figure stuck on top on a stick or a toothpick and a little umbrella over it, and then you’re touched on the head, or imagine you’re touched on the head by that. That’s the paraphernalia with which it’s done, the ritual implement. So it strengthens what we’ve gotten already.
In theory, if one wants to do it properly, the way that Tsongkhapa outlined, then one would not receive a jenang before receiving a wang, but in practice many people confer these jenangs for people who have not received a wang. Again, if you want to follow it precisely according to the way that Tsongkhapa taught, then in those situations, if somebody has not had a full initiation, then with the jenang you’re only able to visualize the Buddha-figure in front of you, not yourself as the Buddha-figure. If you have received an empowerment of any figure in, let’s say kriya tantra, the first class, then if you receive a jenang of another figure, let’s say you’ve received the wang of Chenrezig, well then that’s OK if you receive the jenang after that of Tara, you can visualize yourself as Tara, as long as you’ve had a wang of some figure in that system, that class of tantra. That holds true for the higher classes. If you’ve received an empowerment in the highest class of tantra – anuttarayoga, let’s say the Kalachakra initiation – then you can take any jenang from that class or any class beneath that and visualize yourself as that figure. That’s how the system works according to Tsongkhapa. There are slightly other versions and of course there are always situations in which the teacher gives special permission for people to visualize themselves as this figure from the jenang, even if they haven’t received any wangs. but if one wants to follow Tsongkhapa strictly that’s not optimal.
The third ritual is called the “ ngagtu” (sngags-btus). “Ngag” is “mantra,” and “tu” (btus) is to “collect” or “gather.” This is a very interesting ritual. It’s quite rare. The only one that I encountered who ever did it was Serkong Rinpoche. He only did that twice in all the years that I knew him. But this is a ritual for confirming the mantra and the spelling of the mantra. The way in which things were transmitted was orally; nothing was written down after the Buddha taught. Things were only put into writing about 350 or 400 years after the Buddha. So the only way that things were preserved was orally. People memorized it and then gave it on to the next generation. Even when things were written down, they had to be copied by scribes, so errors can come into that.
By the way this whole thing of oral transmission then – if we look at the history of Buddhism and realize that this is the way that the teachings were passed down, then we can appreciate the custom that the Tibetans still honor which is getting the oral transmission of a text, the “lung” it’s called in Tibetan. This is very important that you have the unbroken oral transmission of the text, having been recited from one generation to the next generation. What’s important here is that the transmission be done without any mistakes in terms of the words. That’s quite interesting actually. I had always thought that the transmission had to be done by somebody who actually understood the text and realized the text. Although you could find that explanation and that of course would be optimal, that is not actually the criterion for a valid oral transmission. Criterion for it is that it’s free of mistakes, of actual verbal mistakes of the text.
Just somebody who was there, who has a deep connection – you’d have to have a really close bond and deep connection with the ones that you’re giving it to; that needs to be there, it can’t just be anybody – then that would be sufficient for constituting an oral transmission. If on top of that they understood and realized the meaning of the text, that’s even better. That was how the teachings were transmitted. The Tibetans feel very strongly that this needs to be continued, that you do gain inspiration from that. The inspiration is – again I had thought it was only the inspiration that, “Here’s somebody who actually understands it,” but I think that that’s “icing on the cake,” as it were, but the main thing is, “Here is inspiration that there’s no mistake in the text and it’s correct.”
The mantra, which is Sanskrit, is an item that is most open to mistakes, especially since the Tibetans really garble the Sanskrit pronunciation of them, so that in many cases it’s almost unrecognizable to an Indian: “vajra” becomes “bendza.” You take it from there into Mongolian for example and “vajra” becomes “ochir.” When you try to do these mantras in Chinese, my goodness, the sound structure is so different, you really get quite an unrecognizable sound. So how do you transmit the mantras so that there’s not going to be a mistake. For this you need the correct spelling, and here you have the ngagtu.
It’s really quite fascinating. The way that it’s done is… the Sanskrit alphabet is very mathematical, the way in which it’s constructed, in terms of the letters will be into classes – the gutturals, and the cerebrals, and so on, the sibilants – it depends on which part of your mouth you make them in. There are rows and columns of the letters that are according to a linguistic analysis of the letters. That’s how the Sanskrit alphabet is set up, it’s very neat – the vowels as well. You set up a grid with powder on a metal plate, a round plate which is called a mirror, but it’s a round plate. Then you take powder from the different grid squares and write the letter on the mirror surface. So the grid is specified very much, “the consonant is the fourth one in the fifth row with the third vowel.” There are coordinates that are going to specify the consonant and the vowel, and you go through the entire mantra, syllable by syllable, and write it out with the correct spelling, and this is how it was not garbled. If, as a Sanskrit scholar, you look at the way the Tibetans spell the mantras, unfortunately mistakes have come in anyway. Nevertheless, this is the main system which is used for guaranteeing the correctness of the mantras, and again, you get inspiration, “This is the correct mantra.”
So we have these three different ceremonies or rituals done progressively, usually, if one is going to do a particular Buddha system very fully. Often we don’t have the opportunity to get all of them. To give them all the same name of “initiation” again whitewashes it, sort of waters it down – it’s an empowerment, a subsequent permission, and a gathering of the mantra.
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