You are in the archive Please visit our new homepage

The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > Advanced Meditation > Tantra Teachings > Essentials of Tantra in Terms of Hologram Theory > Session Six: Purity of Actions and Further Questions

Essentials of Tantra in Terms of Hologram Theory

Alexander Berzin
Seattle, Washington, USA, April 2003

Session Six: Purity of Actions and Further Questions

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:33 hours)

Pure actions, similar to all the rest of them, are done within the context of the understanding of voidness. What we imagine that we’re able to do is to exert an “enlightening influence” on everyone around us – the term for a Buddha-activity, which is sometimes just called “Buddha-activity.” I prefer an “enlightening influence,” because a Buddha acts in a spontaneous way, without having to plan it, and doesn’t actually do anything. Just the way that a Buddha is is going to exert an enlightening influence on everyone around.

There are four types of enlightening influence. The first is usually called “pacifying,” that’s to quiet down others, to calm them down. Just being in the presence of a Buddha – and we can see this with some of the great lamas – calms us down. There was this great lama who has passed away, Rato Rinpoche he was called, in India, who was known as the Baby Lama when I was there. And people whose babies were constantly crying and it was really difficult to calm them down, they’d bring them to the presence of this lama and just being in his presence they would calm down.

He really was quite amazing. I saw him once in Bodhgaya where you have a ruthless crowd of beggars around everybody, and demanding money, and really clawing at you, and he would come with a little bag of coins, and he had this ability to just say, “Line up, and I’ll give a coin to each of you.” And they would all calm down and they would line up. I never saw anybody else able to control these type of people and calm them. That’s one aspect that we have, that we’re able to calm others down, quiet them down, which doesn’t mean to put them to sleep, because we’re so boring, but to be able to calm them down if they’re nervous and upset – a wonderful quality to have, to have that influence on others.

Then the second type of enlightening influence is called “increase,” usually. That means to “stimulate,” when we have a stimulating influence on others. When somebody is in the presence of a Buddha, then their minds are more clear, their energy is stronger. They’re able to do things, and all their various qualities increase, they’re stimulated. Also we could imagine that we have that stimulating influence on everyone around, that we can bring out all their good qualities.

I remember experiences, where I would go to the old Ling Rinpoche, the Senior Tutor of His Holiness before I could understand very much Tibetan, but with him I could understand almost everything that he said. It was just so stimulating being in his presence that it really made the mind much more clear and much more alert. It wasn’t even that you had to do anything. It was almost like his energy was like that. This is what we’re talking about with this Buddha-activity, this enlightening influence.

The third type of activity is called “power,” usually, which is to be able, in a sense, to get everything organized and under control, so that everything around you becomes more powerful, in a sense. When things are very disorganized and out of control, whether it’s people or things around you, then just by your way of being everybody comes together. It’s not that everybody comes under my power for devious means, or being a control freak, or anything like that, but again with an understanding of voidness, not an ego-trip or anything like that. We’re just able to get everything internally organized and working together and everything around us under control. It’s almost like natural leadership qualities, to be able to work with a group and everything can come together cohesively – and just by your way of being, a charismatic way of being.

The fourth type of Buddha-activity is sometimes translated as “wrathful,” which is not the greatest word, but “forceful,” a very strong, forceful energy to get rid of dangerous situations, when it’s necessary. Sort of, just by your way of being, cut it out, like I was explaining this example of the swarm of hornets flying into the temple, and his Holiness just sort of almost like sending out some energy, “Cut it out,” forcefully made them turn around and go out of the temple.

Or an example of this powerful type of Buddha-activity – His Holiness – I remember, at Rikon in Switzerland, at the time of the Kalachakra initiation there, in 1985. People wanted to take the one-day precepts, one-day vows, and his Holiness said, “Well, that’s very good, so everybody come here at four o’clock in the morning.” And it wasn’t easy to get there at four o’clock in the morning, and about three quarters of the people came at four o’clock in the morning. If we were to say, “Everybody come here tomorrow morning at four o’ clock,” nobody would show up. To have that influence to be able to bring everybody together, to do something powerfully together, like come together at four o’ clock in the morning. He didn’t even have to do anything. He just said, “OK, tomorrow morning we’ll meet at four o’ clock,” and everybody came, three quarters of them.

So these are not so far-fetched. We can see some examples, at least I’ve seen [some examples] in my experience with the great lamas. And so we imagine that we are able to exert these four types of enlightening influence on others. That is done in the sadhana practices when we are imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure within the context of the understanding of voidness, and reciting mantra, and imagining lights going out, and exerting these type of influences on everyone around us.

We’re really doing something like a dress rehearsal of being a Buddha, the mind having all the various – voidness, and bodhichitta, and compassion – we’re trying to have all these things as represented by the arms and so on, and being this Buddha-figure, and the mantra, and the activities, and all the lights, and all of that, at the same time. This is what I was referring to when we were talking about the warp of a loom, on which you weave together all these various aspects and try to do them all at the same time, which is what we will be doing as a Buddha. By practicing now similar to the resultant state that we want to achieve, that acts like doing a dress rehearsal for a theater performance. It acts as the much more efficient cause for being able to achieve that resultant state.

And it’s not a lie, because it’s done within the context of the understanding of voidness, within the context of labeling “me” on these Buddha-nature factors that will allow it, and on our future attainment of enlightenment as a valid basis for labeling. And we know that we’re not there yet. It’s not that we’re taking it literally, concretely true that “I actually am an enlightened being and I can do all of this.” It’s important then that it not be a self-deceptive process, otherwise it can become no different from a crazy person thinking that they’re Cleopatra or Napoleon, and it’s not that.

Another aspect of working with these Buddha-figures is the self-image aspect, not only in a graphic sense, but also in a sense of our usual meaning of “self-image,” the personality aspects. Each of these Buddha-figures is going to represent the full enlightenment of Buddhahood with all its qualities, but within that general context then each of them is going to have one special feature that it particularly represents.

For instance, Chenrezig being compassion, Manjushri being wisdom or clarity of mind, these sort of things. That is also very helpful when we need to try to be more compassionate, to work with the self-image of being Chenrezig, “Yes, I do have this love, this compassion; I am adequate to be able to help others.” Or Manjushri, when we we’re feeling pretty dumb, to have this image that, “No, I do have clarity of mind. I am able to understand.” It helps give us self-confidence.

Or Kalachakra is a network of seven hundred and twenty-two figures and very complex. There are figures for each of the days of the week of the year, and each of the bones in the body, and each of the astrology signs, and planets, and all these sort of things, tons and tons of figures – and we’re the whole thing. So that’s the self-image of being able to handle whatever comes in the cycles of time, any diversity, any sort of astrological configuration, anything that happens during the year.

That’s very helpful when more work gets piled on our desk in the office, “Well, no problem, that’s just another cluster of deities over there, on the third level [of my mandala], down in that corner.” We can handle it, no problem. We can handle anything that the cycles bring us. So that feeling of being able to handle the full complexity of life is a very helpful self-image, especially when we get into the negative self-image of, “It’s too much. I can’t take it.” So we work like that with these yidams.

Those are the four types of purities, or purifications, and that’s this first feature that [establishes] tantra is faster that sutra, because it’s closer to the resultant stage. Think about that for a moment and then perhaps you have some questions before we go on to the second one.

Question: The question has to do with manner of practice. Is it necessary to do sadhana practice exclusively in the controlled environment of a meditation room where everything is quiet and calm and nice? Or is it also possible to do this type of practice while we’re walking around?

Answer: Yes, it is possible do this type of practice while walking around. In fact, that’s what we’re supposed to try to be doing. We’re supposed to try to be doing this all the time. So even if we’re not able to do a formal ritual of a sadhana – which, as said, is like a script of an opera, a mental opera that we go through with all the various steps and stages – the main thing is, as Serkong Rinpoche said, “It’s a daggyey (bdag-bskyed), not a kagyey (kha-bskyed),” he said – a “daggyey” is a self-generation, a “kaggyey” is sort of the generation of our words – so the main point is not reciting the ritual with all the words, but the main point is the self-transformation.

That self-generation, or self-transformation, is something that we try to remain mindful of – remember, mindfulness is this mental hold, the mental glue to hold onto it – all the time, as much as possible, which of course is very challenging. But in moments when we can be mindful, let’s say if we’re going for a walk or something like that, we certainly can be visualizing ourselves, imagining ourselves as the Buddha-figure, imagining all beings are around in the mandala, reciting the mantra, and imagining lights going out from us, and we’re exerting these four types of enlightening influence on everyone around us.

It’s perfectly good and valuable tantra practice. So even if we’re not able to do a ritual at home, because, like the person who asked the question, they’re a new father and the circumstances are pretty difficult for doing that, nevertheless, that need not be an obstacle to our practice. The practice is intended, as all Buddhist practices are, to bring us joy, to help bring joy to the mind. And if they become a burden, so that they become a torture, and we’re just doing it out of guilt, because of obligation, and we would feel guilty if we didn’t do it, something is going wrong and we need to check up with somebody, or check up ourselves to see what we might need to correct, because that’s not the way that the practice is intended.

Often the problem is that we’re being inflexible, and too fundamentalist, “Ah, I have to do it exactly like this, every single day, regardless.” Remember, skillful means, readopt, reflow to what’s going on. If you’re going to be on a long plane ride, or a long train ride, or a long bus ride, or you drive for a huge amount of time, well, you adjust accordingly when you have to. Or you’re visiting your parents, or people are visiting you, you adjust accordingly, but staying within the boundaries of our vows. There are always different ways of doing things in accordance with the times and conditions. Anything else?

Question: OK, the question is, “In the self-generation, when we’re generating a complex system with many figures, and when there is a couple” – which is usually in the highest class of tantra, annutarayoga, you don’t normally find that in kriya tantra, for instance, the first class of tantra, in fact I can’t think of any example in the first class of tantra, so perhaps it’s exclusive to the fourth class, although I may be wrong – “what’s the order of generation?”

Answer: There are two types of generation styles in various parts of the sadhana: there will be either an instantaneous generation, in which instantaneously there are all thirty-two figures, or all sixty-two figures, or all whatever number of figures it might be, all at once, and then there are others in which you first generate yourself as the, it’s usually the male of a couple, and then you progressively visualize the next, the female. And then often there are practices in which you imagine all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas come into you and go down the central channel of the male [and enter] into the womb of the female, and then everything is generated there, and then sent out from the womb to the rest of the mandala, in analogy to the whole process of birth, to purifying the whole birth process. There are those ways of generating, or there’s just generating one by one – so, several different styles.

There’s always the issue how many Buddha-figures to involve ourselves with. Some people want to just practice one. The joke was with the Tibetans that, “The Tibetans practice a hundred different deity systems and aren’t able to realize any of them. Whereas the Indian masters before practiced just one, and with one were able to realize them all.” So there’s that comment, or joke, maybe not such a joke, and it raises the issue for us how many different systems to become involved with. A great deal depends, of course, on our capacities.

As we were discussing earlier in the week, the different Buddha-figure systems can supplement each other, because one will have more detail on one aspect of practice, one will have more detail on another, and so we get a much fuller picture with several of these systems. Also, if we want to be able to benefit and help others, we need to know many different systems to be able to teach them, and answer questions, and these sort of things. But in terms of a more pragmatic level of them in our daily activities, it’s nice to have, what we call “a bag of tricks” that you can use, that “Sometimes I need the Manjushri image, sometimes I need a Chenrezig image, sometimes I need the Tara image,” depending on the situation, what’s appropriate, what’s helpful.

And when we are asked to take on more and more responsibilities, then – first, of course, we go to Shantideva and follow Shantideva’s advice, which is, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” in our English idiom. Examine well before you undertake something, to see whether or not you can actually see it through to the end, and if you can’t, don’t accept in the beginning. Be practical in terms of that – but also we can always do a little bit more than we think we are capable of.

When I used to translate for Serkong Rinpoche, when I was really, really tired he’d always make me translate for another five minutes, “You can always do five more minutes!” That is really a very good training, because we can always do a little bit more when our mind is set. “I can’t take it. I can’t do anything more.” – you can always do a little bit more, but of course you don’t try to do too much more, because then that’s destructive to ourselves, and you don’t get anything done. So then, within that context, like in Kalachakra, “I can handle more and more things. It’s not overwhelming. It’s not too much. I can fit it in.”

Question: Could you explain what damtsig means?

Alex: The word “damtsig” (dam-tshig; Skt. samaya) means “close bond.” Sometimes people translate it as “holy word,” or “promise,” or things like that: that’s very misleading if one looks at the larger context of all its usages. It’s a close bond, a close connection. It’s used in many different contexts. One is the close bond with a Buddha-figure, as in yidam – yi and damtsig, damtsig, or samaya for the mind – by visualizing ourselves, imagining ourselves in that form.

[Then] it’s very important to have a very pure damtsig or samaya with our spiritual master, so a close bond with the spiritual master, which is sort of like a heart-to-heart connection that you really feel very strong and you don’t want to sully it by lying, or being deceitful, or cheating, or pretending that you’ve been doing your practice or something when you haven’t really – these sort of things that would mess up that close bond; you want to keep that, it’s really something sacred. The word “dam” in that damtsig has the connotation of “being sacred,” so it’s really something very sacred, very special, and you want to keep it very sacred. So that’s a sacred close bond, close connection.

And then in the various vows – there’s a difference between a vow and a samaya. A vow is to restrain from a certain action, either a naturally destructive action, or something which is proscribed for certain purposes, like eating in the evening for ordained people. One wants to refrain from that. It’s not that they’re negative actions, but certain things that you want to refrain from, restrain yourself from, because it would be detrimental, like eating at night, if you want to meditate at night and have a clear mind at night and in the morning. Eating makes your mind heavy, so you refrain from that.

That’s a vow – to restrain from something, refrain from something, whereas a damtsig is a close bond – what you do, rather than what you refrain from – and there are nineteen “close-bonding practices,” I call them, nineteen samayas with the five Buddha-families in the highest class of tantra.

Buddha-families are speaking about different aspects of Buddha-nature. To make a close bond, let’s say in the Ratnasambhava family, the jewel family, which is dealing with the Buddha-nature factor of equalizing awareness, to be able to see the equality of everyone, to put them all together in terms of “Everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. Everybody is equally void in terms of how they exist...” all this equalizing thing, which is like seeing the pattern how everything fits together in one equalizing way. To make a close bond with that, one does four types of generosity, of giving to others equally – material things, and Dharma, and love, and protection from fear – so those are damtsigs, those are close-bonding practices, to bond you closely to that Buddha-nature factor of equalizing awareness, so that we develop it more. That’s the meaning of damtsig

Question: Is this the same as “being of one taste?”

Alex: No, that’s a technical term which is usually used for everything being equally devoid of true existence – so you could say the equalizing awareness is employed there, for seeing that everything is equally devoid of true existence, but – “one taste” is a technical term for that. It’s also a technical term in the stages of the path in certain Karma Kagyu presentations

Question: What does it mean that we are the building as well?

Alex: In certain practices, like Guhyasamaja, you actually are working with “This part of the building is corresponding to this part of the body,” as an actual point in which one is conscious of this being the building as well. In other practices, I’ve not come across that being explicitly discussed, but in any case, the closest analogy that I can think of is that of the skin. In a sense it’s a container of all the various systems within the body, but we would label “me” on the skin as well, so it’s both.

Question: So you don’t become an actual building, it’s more of a metaphor for...

Alex: One has to loosen the mind in terms of not grasping at, “Well, that’s a building.” It is in many ways a symbol; it’s representing something. And you have to work in terms of all the different things that it represents. If you want to have twenty-four things simultaneously “in our minds,” we would say in the West, if you want to be mindful of twenty-four things, which means a mental hold on twenty-four things, well, that’s difficult to do abstractly. If you actually represent that graphically, of twenty-four arms that have a hold on twenty-four things, it’s easier to do that simultaneously, to have all those realizations simultaneously. It’s just a method. Similarly, the building is representing this as well, the four gateways representing the four placements of close mindfulness, that sort of stuff. So one has to be not so literal. Again, the understanding of voidness is essential.

Question: What would the feeling of joy that is unmixed with confusion be like?

Alex: Well, it is joy that is not mixed with a grasping for true existence – of me, of the actual joy itself, of the object that is producing the joy, of the object that we are offering the joy to, and so on, that none of them have true existence, or inherent existence. So there is nothing in them that makes it inherently what it is, that there is something inside the sensation that makes it desirable and joyous by its own power.

On a mundane level, a samsaric level, a feeling of joy or happiness is the ripening of positive karma. That’s what it is, where it’s coming from. It’s arising from causes. It’s how one experiences the ripening, the result of positive karma, of being constructive. On a nirvanic level it’s the experience of that state of separation from disturbing emotions – and what we try to do, of course, is to experience that without this ego-grasping, “Me, and I want it, and I want it to last forever,” and not let go. Or in terms of giving to someone else, “Oh, it’s not going to be good enough, it’s not going to satisfy them, they’re not going to like it,” or “They’re going to like it too much and then make too much demands on me,” all these ego-concerns about it – it’s just pure joy. Not easy, for many of us – not easy at all.

Question: In trying to working with these Buddha-figures, what do we do with our ordinary experiences of life, in which we suffer, and we get angry, and we have all sorts of disturbing emotions, and so on?

Alex: Well, as in general Dharma practice, we try to apply antidotes. So if we’re angry, then there are many, many different levels of opponents that we can use – in terms of practice of patience, and the stuff that Shantideva teaches in his text [Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior] about the causes of anger and what is it that’s annoying me. We can also go in terms of the understanding of voidness, in terms of self and who’s getting angry and these type of things and suffering in terms of it – many, many approaches to that – what is it arising from, in terms of negative actions. You can think in terms of burning things off, purification, you can think, in terms of compassion, of other people’s suffering. You can do tonglen, the giving and taking practice. There are many, many ways to transform and work with the suffering.

The visualization of ourselves as a Buddha-figure – if we are actually able to do that and remain mindful of that – can also remind us to apply Dharma methods when we are suffering, when we are having disturbing emotions. Also, these visualizations are a way of protecting ourselves, in the sense that the visualization of our gurus on the top of our heads, during the day, imagining that we’re always in the presence of our spiritual master – that’s not specifically tantra, by any means, we can do that in sutra as well – but one of the ways that that’s very helpful is that – out of the personal experience of spending an awful lot of time in the presence of my spiritual teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, in his company – in his company I would never act like a jerk, like an idiot. I had so much respect for him that how could I act like an idiot in front of him, speaking stupidly, or doing stupid things, or making stupid jokes, or getting angry?

I remember, once I was visiting Ling Rinpoche, in his past life the Senior Tutor of His Holiness, and we we’re sitting catty-corner to each other, cross-legged on these low Tibetan sort of like a bed type of thing, a platform with a rug on it, and there was a big scorpion on the floor, that appeared on the floor between us. And Ling Rinpoche did a very melodramatic gesture, it was obviously really a dramatic thing, like, “Oh dear, there’s a scorpion on the floor,” and then he looked at me and said, “Aren’t you afraid?” And I looked back at him and I said, “How could I possibly be afraid in your presence?” Because he was really like a Yamantaka, how could I possibly be afraid in the presence of Yamantaka? And he laughed and laughed. And then the attendant came in and put a piece of paper under the scorpion and a glass on top and took it out, as if he had sort of almost materialized the scorpion as a little bit of a challenge. But like that, I couldn’t possibly freak out – with a scorpion on the floor – sitting in front of him, because of my respect for him.

Likewise, when we are visualizing the guru with us all day long, that we’re in the presence, it helps us to not act like a jerk. Similarly, if we are imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure, that also can help us to not act like an idiot, because of this “pride of the deity” – in that context I like to speak of the “self-dignity,” rather than “pride” – the dignity of being the deity. These Buddha-figures don’t freak out, and don’t act like idiots, and don’t get angry, and don’t get upset. So it helps us with self-esteem, which is very helpful as a preventive for getting angry or upset.

Suffering is one thing in terms of feeling pain, the other is how we respond to it. Pain is, after all, just a physical sensation. It’s just the arising of an appearance and a feeling of it. It’s nothing more, it’s no big deal. It may be difficult, but if one looks in terms of the mental activity, it’s no big deal. I do that in the sensitivity training – I have this [book and course] Developing Balanced Sensitivity – and one of the exercises, one little part of it, is to tickle your palm, and then pinch your palm really hard, and then just hold your hand, and what’s the difference in terms of the mental activity? It’s just the arising of a sensation and the feeling of a sensation. It’s nothing more. It’s no big deal.

If you can train yourself with that, then what’s the difference between that and a mental level of feeling happy, or unhappy, or neutral? It’s the same. So it’s how you respond to the suffering that really is essential, and again, you’re sitting there in class and pinching your palm – you don’t scream out, “Ouch!” and freak out. Although my students weren’t brave enough to pinch each other’s palm and do the exercise, that would be more effective. An advanced level: tickle each other’s palm and pinch it, see whether you can do the same exercise...

OK, let’s break for lunch and then deal with the other points after lunch.