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Home > Advanced Meditation > Tantra Teachings > General Kriya Tantra Practice > Session One: Features of Tantra and the Six Deities Practice

General Kriya Tantra Practice

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, March 2007

Session One: Features of Tantra and the Six Deities Practice

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, 26 March 2007

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:56 hours)

Classes of Tantra

Yesterday we went through some of the basic special features of tantra (rgyud) and we devoted quite a bit of time to various questions that people had about that. And what I’d like to do to start out today is speak a little bit about the practice that we do in the first class of tantra, kriya tantra, since several of you had asked for that.

In the tantra systems there are many different ways of dividing the different types of practices, the different types of texts. There is a whole historical development of the way that these are divided. But, in the end, what the Tibetans follow are two different systems. In the new schools or the new traditions (gsar-ma) of Tibetan Buddhism – that would be Kagyu, Sakya , and present-day Gelug traditions – there are four classes of tantra. By their Sanskrit names, there’s kriya, charya, yoga, and anuttarayoga tantras. Kriya tantra is some sort of (I don’t know how you translate that) “ritual” or “action” tantra. And charya means “behavior” tantra. And yoga is “yoking” with the authentic – that’s the meaning of “yoga”. And anuttarayoga is the “unsurpassed yoking” with the authentic. In any case, the names aren’t so crucial here. But the way of explaining the differences in these four… Again, there are many ways of doing that, but the most general way is that: Kriya emphasizes external type of actions, particularly ritual cleanliness. A cleansing – you need to be strictly vegetarian, avoid onion and garlic, and these types of things. Then charya has an equal emphasis on external and internal practice. Yoga has the main emphasis on internal practices. And anuttarayoga, special internal practices dealing with the subtle energy systems. No need to really go further into detail there.

And in the old tantra tradition of Nyingma (rnying ma) they have the same three classes to start with – kriya, charya, and yoga tantra – and then within what would be the classified as anuttarayoga tantra in the new systems, they have three divisions of that, depending on which aspect of anuttarayoga practice has the most emphasis. So there is mahayoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga (or dzogchen). So in the Nyingma system there are six classes of tantra, but we shouldn’t think that they totally different systems because in fact they cover pretty much the same. Mahayoga has the main emphasis on the first stage of practice of anuttarayoga, the generation stage (bskyed-rim). Anuyoga has its emphasis on the first part of the second stage, the complete stage (rdzogs-rim). And atiyoga has its emphasis on the last part of the complete stage.


Well what I’d like to explain then is the general type of practice that we do with the first class of tantra, kriya tantra, which is the type of practice that most – what should we say – that initiations are given most widely for. There are two types of initiations. We spoke a little bit yesterday about this term “initiation” (dbang). I prefer to call it an “empowerment”. There is the full empowerment of the Buddha-figure and then there is what’s called in Tibetan the jenang (rjes-snang), a “subsequent permission” (something like that). And this subsequent permission, it’s subsequent to receiving a full empowerment. Serkong Rinpoche used to describe it as: the empowerment gives you the sword and the subsequent permission sharpens that sword. So it just makes it more powerful.

The empowerment itself has – you can tell that it’s an empowerment because it uses a mandala, either a cloth mandala or a powder mandala, something like that, which it is given from. Whereas the subsequent permission, this jenang, is usually given just on the basis of a vase (bum-pa) and a torma (gtor-ma), one of these cakes that are made out of tsampa. In the empowerment they always pass out red blindfolds, a ribbon that you put over your forehead; and you’re usually given a red string, a protection string, to put around your arm. So it’s easy to identify what you are receiving, either an empowerment or a subsequent permission, just by these external features – in case the teacher doesn’t specify what actually you’re receiving. In both of them there is going to be the bodhisattva vows. In the highest class, the yoga and anuttarayoga tantra, there’s going to be tantric vows as well. So whether they actually tell you or not, it’s part of the ritual. And unless you consciously take those vows, you haven’t taken them, and you haven’t received the initiation; you have just been there and witnessed it and perhaps gotten a little bit of inspiration from the milieu of being there, but you certainly haven’t received the empowerment or the subsequent permission.

There is also something called a ngagtu (sngags-btus), which is a gathering of the mantra. Which is yet another ritual, which has to do with making very certain the syllables of the mantra. But that’s very, very rare that that’s given. Anyway, there are these three types of initiations, if you want to call it that.

If you receive the empowerment then you can visualize yourself as the Buddha-figure (yi-dam). If you receive the subsequent permission without receiving the empowerment (or any empowerment) then, if you follow Tsongkhapa’s teachings strictly, then you are not allowed to visualize yourself as a Buddha-figure, only the Buddha-figure in front of you. But you don’t have to have the empowerment for every single Buddha-figure that you practice. So if you have received an empowerment from some deity in the kriya tantra, in the first class of tantra – and the most commonly given one is the Thousand-Armed Chenrezig – then if you receive the jenang, the subsequent permission, of Tara or Manjushri or whatever, you can visualize yourself as that figure. In other words, you can visualize yourself as any figure within kriya tantra as long as you’ve received some kriya tantra empowerment. And if you receive an anuttarayoga tantra empowerment – let’s say Kalachakra, which many people have received – then you can practice any deity of any class of tantra below that, if you receive the jenang, the subsequent permission. You can practice it – meaning that you can visualize yourself as that figure. So these are the customs and procedures that Tsongkhapa specified quite clearly.

Participant: [unclear]

Alex: Let me just repeat; someone asked to make it more clear. If you receive an empowerment of the highest class of tantra, then if you receive the subsequent permission of any figure in any of the four classes of tantra, that one and below, you can visualize yourself as that figure. You don’t need the empowerment of that figure. Okay?

Kriya tantra puts a great deal of emphasis on ritual cleanliness, cleaning, purification. And so what you do is, before sitting down to do a practice, you do various types of purification.

Sadhanas and Pujas

Now one thing I need to add here before that, because there is often some confusion here in the way that Westerners use terms: the difference between a puja (mchod-pa) and a sadhana (sgrub-thabs). Westerners tend to use “puja” for both, which is not correct. A puja is an offering ceremony. And so it is making ritual offerings. The Lama Chopa (Bla-ma mchod-pa, The Guru Puja) is an offering ceremony, basically. We are making offerings to the guru and thinking of the qualities of the guru, and so on. It’s a long practice. A sadhana is a – literally the word sadhana, “drub-tab”in Tibetan, is a method for actualizing yourself (in other words, generating yourself) into a Buddha-figure. So it’s a method for actualization (sgrub-pa) for actually becoming the Buddha-figure. A puja doesn’t have that.

Certain advanced pujas, like Lama Chopa, if you’re doing it properly then you need to of course imagine yourself as a Buddha-figure. Because if you’ve received an empowerment, the advice is that you visualize yourself as a Buddha-figure all day long, which, as Serkong Rinpoche mentioned, it doesn’t mean that you have a very clear image in visualization of yourself as a Buddha-figure all day long. That would be quite difficult to do, and make leading daily life quite complicated. But, rather, he used the analogy of – especially if you’re visualizing yourself as a couple, then it’s a little bit awkward in terms of sitting down and moving around and eating and so on. So he used the analogy of wearing clothing. He said, “You wear clothes all day long. You know that you’re wearing clothes, but that doesn’t mean that you have a clear mental image of the clothes that you’re wearing all day long. But you know that you’re wearing them.” And so it’s the same thing in terms of knowing or being aware of yourself as a Buddha-figure, knowing that you are a couple (if it’s a Buddha-figure that’s a couple).

By the way, when you are dealing with a Buddha-figure that is a couple, you are both. It’s not that the partner is somebody else. You are both. They’re representing method and wisdom, the two aspects of your practice that are in union. Like a mother and a father. Yab-yum means “father” and “mother” literally, not masculine and feminine or anything like that. It’s just as you need a mother and father in order to give birth to a child, you need method and wisdom in order to give birth to your attainment of enlightenment, yourself as a Buddha. And then there are many levels of what “method” means here in the combination of method and wisdom.

So sadhana is a way to actualize yourself as this Buddha-figure and another term for it is dag-kyey (bdag-bskyed). In Tibetan, dag-kyey literally means “generation of yourself”. And Serkong Rinpoche always used to say that is a dag-kyey, not a ka-kyey (kha-bskyed). Ka-kyey would be a generation of your mouth. It’s not a generation of your mouth – just going “Blah blah blah,” reciting a ritual. It’s a generation of yourself as this Buddha-figure. Okay. So we’re talking here about a sadhana practice. So please don’t call sadhana practices “puja,” like people call the Chenrezig practice that’s done so commonly in the Kagyu tradition as the Chenrezig puja. It’s not a puja. Okay?


Now the preliminaries before sitting down to do a kriya tantra practice is first you apply a mudra. A mudra is a hand gesture. And these hand gestures are going to be different for the three classes of kriya tantra practice. We have three classes here: the Tathagata or Buddha family, the lotus family, and the vajra family. There are many ways of describing what these families are talking about. When we talk about a Buddha-family, “family” is short for “family trait.” A trait is a characteristic, and what it’s referring to is aspects of Buddha-nature. And so we’re working here with three aspects of Buddha-nature. One way of describing it is Buddha family as body, lotus family as speech, and vajra family as mind. So we all have body, speech, and mind. They can be transformed into a body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. If we didn’t have body, speech, and mind you couldn’t attain a body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. A rock can’t become a Buddha.

So we have these three families. The most commonly practiced Buddha-figure in the Tathagata or Buddha family is Shakyamuni Buddha actually practiced as a Buddha-figure. And in the lotus family is where we have Tara and Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig). And in the vajra family the most commonly practiced figure is Vajrapani. I believe Manjushri is also in the Tathagata family. Now there is a specific mudra for each of these families. There is no need for me to explain what they are. But you apply these mudras to five parts of your body: top of the head, the forehead, the two shoulders, and the heart. This is a type of – making like a protection to ward off negative forces. You have more elaborate practices in the higher classes of tantra; this is the equivalent.

Then you make a preliminary offering, which means that you have to actually set up offerings, whether it’s just water bowls, whether it’s also flowers and incense and so on. Make offerings. Then take refuge – that’s safe direction: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Reaffirm your bodhichitta motivation. Then you need to actually wash yourself, whether you actually take a shower or just wash your face and hands. That cleanliness is emphasized a great deal here. So before you actually sit down to meditate, you wash.

And of course, although it is not mentioned here, before you do any of this you clean the room in which you’re meditating: sweep the floor, dust, and so on. That’s general for any type of meditation. If the room is clean and orderly, that helps your mind to be clean and orderly. And if you are inviting the Buddhas and bodhisattvas as your guests, for making offerings to them, you don’t want to invite an honored guest like that to a dirty room. You would clean the room if you actually were literally inviting the Buddha to your house. So, similarly, you clean the place where you are going to meditate.

So here you actually wash yourself, and then after washing you again do the mudras (the five places), and then you sit down to do your meditation. So this is a preliminary type of cleansing, done on an external level. The kriya tantra deals with the external level as its main emphasis.

Then in the practice of course there is always, again, refuge and bodhichitta. These are absolutely essential in any of these types of practices.

Generating the Six Deities

And then you generate yourself as the Buddha-figure. Now generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure in kriya tantra is done in six steps. In the higher classes of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, there is a slightly different procedure of steps of how you generate yourself as the Buddha-figure.

The Deity as Voidness

The first step is called the deity (or Buddha-figure) as voidness. So the first step is voidness, meditation on voidness. This is very essential. Without this you cannot have proper tantra practice. Without this there is no difference between you imagining yourself as Chenrezig and a schizophrenic crazy person imagining that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra. So we really want to make our practice different from that of a schizophrenic crazy person and do this properly. Now “voidness” means that, well, literally it is an absence, it’s an absence of impossible ways of existing. And so what we need to do in any voidness meditation is to recognize, as Tsongkhapa said, recognize what is our false belief of true existence and the appearance of true existence that our mind is projecting. So identify really what that is. As if, for instance – the simplest level is if everything existed concretely, surrounded by a solid line or encapsulated in plastic as an independently solidly “this” or “that,” establishing its own existence by itself.

And then we need to understand various reasons why this is impossible. Nothing could possibly exist that way. And then we have to cut off – as His Holiness says, like a big sword of Manjushri – just cut off this belief, and not only the belief but that appearance of true existence, and just focus on “no such thing.” That’s not so easy to do, of course. And naturally it’s not as though all of a sudden we don’t see anything. If your eyes are open.... Tibetan meditation is always done with the eyes half open, not staring, unless you’re doing mahamudra or dzogchen meditation, special meditations, but normally we’re just looking down; it’s not with your eyes closed.

Like, for instance, we could use an example. Let’s say you are looking for some chocolate in the house and you look everywhere, where it could be, and after you’ve done a thorough investigation you realize there is no chocolate. So how do you focus on “there is no chocolate?” That’s what we’re doing here. But chocolate is something that exists. “Impossible ways of existing” don’t exist. But when you really focus on “there isn’t any” – that’s your main focus – now you still see the floor in front of you, but you don’t pay attention to that. And the more you absorb yourself into “there is no such… there is no chocolate,” the less your focus is on the floor that you’re seeing.

So this is sort of how you start getting into the focus on voidness. To imagine that all of a sudden the screen goes blank is not so easy, because then what are you doing: you’re visualizing a blank screen. And if you’re doing that with your eyes open then you’re still seeing things, so this becomes rather complicated. So voidness meditation is a whole different topic. However, the thing to bear in mind here is that during your sadhana practice, that’s not really the time to do the analytical meditation and go through, in great detail, voidness meditation. If we’re doing the sadhana correctly, then we have already done a great deal of voidness meditation and we’re very familiar with it.

And so in the actual sadhana we just need to go through, like there’s a Sanskrit line “OM SVABHAVA SHUDDHA: SARVA DHARMA: SVABHAVA SHUDDHO ’HAM.” It has to do with the nature of things. Anyway, no need to go through the specifics of the Sanskrit sentence that you say, but it’s just a matter of reminding yourself of the understanding of voidness. But to remind yourself with some words implies that you have familiarity with it and that you can actually recall your understanding of voidness. If you have no understanding of voidness, reciting the words isn’t going to do anything. And naturally if you have not done extensive meditation on voidness – okay, perhaps you can do some meditation here, but that’s not the proper way of practicing because, in fact, then you lose your focus on the sadhana. Then you go do some separate meditation. So maybe one might practice in that way if you don’t have familiarity with voidness and you haven’t really spent a great deal of time with voidness meditation, but don’t think that that’s the proper way of practicing the sadhana. But at least it might give you the circumstance of doing that meditation.

But when we generate bodhichitta in the meditation as well, in the sadhana, it’s not that at that point you go through the whole seven-part cause and effect process of generating bodhichitta. We should have enough familiarity with bodhichitta to be able to just generate it. By reciting the words, you recall bodhichitta; it comes back up to mindfulness. Again, if you took time out in the sadhana to go through the seven-part and actually generate bodhichitta, that would not be the proper way of doing the sadhana. It would distract you from the sadhana, because then you have to start doing all sorts of other visualizations: everybody having been my mother, and so on. That’s why tantra is very advanced. In tantra, through the recitation of the various things that you’re doing in the sadhana, you are just using that as a cue to recollect the insight and the level of the type of mind that we have already practiced before, that we’re familiar with in our sutra practice. Otherwise you’re just reciting words, which might be very nice, because in Tibetan it’s in a nice rhythm, but it’s not going to bring you great spiritual progress.

So the first step is voidness: that I don’t exist in these impossible ways, fixed as a samsaric being, the way that I am. These deities don’t exist in some solid way. We understand that dependent arising… that with sufficient causes and conditions, based on Buddha-nature, that it is possible that I actually manifest this form. We can think in terms of the inseparable samsaric and nirvana levels that we were discussing yesterday. There are many, many different ways of meditating on voidness or recollecting voidness. And in each of the sadhanas – I haven’t seen this explained so much in kriya tantra, but certainly in anuttarayoga tantra – there is a specific line of reasoning and way of meditating on voidness that you have in each of the different Buddha-figure systems.

And so that actually is quite helpful if you’re doing many different sadhanas together, that – like in Kalachakra, you think of the voidness of yourself, the person that’s doing the practice; and the voidness of the causes for achieving the result; then the voidness of the result that you are aiming to achieve; and then the voidness of the three circles that are involved (the person doing it, what you’re aiming to achieve, and the process of achieving it). So it’s one way of doing it. In other practices, one emphasizes slightly different things. Like in Chakrasamvara: the voidness of the aggregates, then of what we’re experiencing, then the voidness of the person imputed on the aggregates, then the voidness of the voidness of the person imputed on the aggregates, and then the nonconceptual level of that. So there are different lines that we can go through in each of these sadhanas; and if you have teachings on that and know how to do that, it is very, very helpful. Very helpful.

Question: Is there a suggestion of where to start, when there are such different lineages? So many different explanations of how to meditate on voidness. How do you approach that?

Alex: You approach it based on whatever teachings you’ve received and whatever is appropriate to the system that you’re practicing. Like that. You apply whatever level of understanding you have.

Now it is said that one could practice tantra on the basis of the Chittamatra tenets. This is the Mind-Only School, which – if you not familiar with, don’t worry about it; but for those of you who are familiar with it, you need to practice tantra on the basis of Mahayana tenet systems, which is talking about the voidness not only of persons, but of all phenomena. And within that there is the Chittamatra system and the Madhyamaka system (the Mind-Only and the Middle Way system). In the Middle Way there’s two schools as well: Svatantrika and Prasangika, they’re called. So the optimal way, of course, is to practice it on the Prasangika level, Prasangika understanding.

They say that it is possible to achieve a certain level of attainment through practicing tantra with a Mind-Only view, a Chittamatra view. But at a certain point of anuttarayoga practice, when you have actually dissolved the winds into the central channel, then automatically you will realize that the Chittamatra view is not the most sophisticated, and you will change to a Prasangika point of view. You will understand the actual relationship of mind with appearances, in terms of mental labeling. It’s not that the mind produces truly existent appearances, like you have in the Chittamatra system. So, like that. And in the Hevajra practice within the Sakya tradition, for instance, the method of meditating on voidness is to first think of the Chittamatra view and then refine it with the Madhyamaka view. So there it’s quite explicitly done. It’s quite nice, actually, the Sakya method.

Basically you need to study voidness, then you need to have the extensive teachings on it, you need to think about it very carefully, and on that basis then you can practice this. As I said, the simplest level of understanding is that it is completely false that I and anything else exist solidly, all by itself, with a big line around it, isolated from everything else, independent from everything else, and establishing itself by itself. The easy example His Holiness uses, or has used, is to look at your fourth finger – is the fourth finger short or long? Well it’s not short or long on its own, by its own power. It is short compared to your middle finger, relative to the middle finger, or dependent on the middle finger; and it is long dependent on your small finger, your little finger, the fifth finger. So its existing as long or short, it’s not established by itself, it’s established dependently on other things. This is the simplest example. As I said, it is an example from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The Deity as Letters

Now, generation as the deity. The first step is the meditation on voidness, the deity as voidness. Then the second step is the deity as letters or syllables, and these are the syllables of the mantra. And you imagine a moon disc. The discs are always like a full moon, flat, horizontal. We are not talking about a ball here; we are talking about – like a round cushion. And, standing on this cushion, the syllables of the mantra are always standing up; they’re not lying down. Standing up, you have the seed syllable of the deity – or the mantra, whatever it might be – standing in the middle, facing out. And then you have the syllables of the mantra standing around it, around the edge of the moon disc. Now of course the question always arises how to visualize these. And in anuttarayoga tantra there’s a difference between whether they’re going clockwise or counterclockwise or facing in or facing out. That has to do with the specific subclass within that tradition, within that deity system, so let’s not worry about that; that’s a specific detail.

The question is, of course, do you visualize these in the ancient Indian script? Do you visualize it in the modern Indian script (which is different)? Do you visualize it in the Tibetan script? Do you visualize it in Chinese characters? Do you visualize it in our Roman alphabet? How do you visualize it? So that’s not an easy question. Serkong Rinpoche basically said it doesn’t matter: you can visualize it with any type of alphabet. Although in certain practices, not here in kriya tantra, you have parts of the letter dissolving into each other; and that’s quite specific. Now it doesn’t matter what part dissolves into what part, but we need something equivalent to that in order to be able to use these syllables in the fullest way in anuttarayoga tantra. So this depends on each of us, whether we are familiar with these other alphabets or not; that’s basically your choice. But actually the thing to keep in mind is that the original scripts are very complicated scripts in Indian, they’re not the modern Devanagari script that’s used for Sanskrit – although that might be a very convenient way of visualizing these syllables if you know Sanskrit and Indian languages. In any case, visualize the moon disc with the syllable and the letters around it.

Now with these visualizations it’s very important to not just have what’s called the clarity of the visualization – clarity just means a mental hologram; feeling; it doesn’t have to be one hundred percent in focus. The main thing, in addition to that and what needs to have the greater emphasis, is the pride of the deity, which means labeling the conventional “me” on the mind that is generating this. And of course the mind that is generating it is inseparable from what it’s generating. And this is not something which is crazy, because all these appearances as an enlightened being are something which can be generated for real (we can use that word loosely) later on, on our mental continuum, based on Buddha-nature, if we want to look at it that way. Or we can look at it as these inseparable two levels of samsara and nirvana. Two ways of looking at it. I mean, you can put those two together in terms of that, eventually, it will be dominantly the nirvana thing.

But it’s like, for instance, when you meditate on bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is focused on my own individual enlightenment, enlightened stage, that I can achieve in the future, but I haven’t achieved it yet. I can achieve it on the basis of Buddha-nature. And how do you focus on your future enlightenment? Well, you can represent it by a Buddha, Buddha-figure. Something like that. Especially when we are visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure – it represents what we are aspiring to, what we are achieving, but it is not something which is crazy. We know that we can achieve it, if you put enough work into the practice, on the basis of Buddha-nature with the inspiration of a teacher. Therefore when we do these visualizations here, of the syllables on the moon disc, we hold the pride of being that. Conventional “me,” not a solidly existent “me.” My mental continuum can create this.

The Deity as Sound

Then the next step, the third step, is the deity as the sound. And this is the sound of the syllables. Some practices, we have it in this order; in other practices, the sound comes first and then the appearance of the syllables. We find variations on that in different practices. So you imagine that there is the making of the sound of this. OM MANI PADME HUM, for example, if it’s a practice of Chenrezig. And, likewise, we hold the pride of that; that the mind, my mind, can give rise to this in a pure form, like a pure mantra, pure speech of a Buddha.

The Deity as Form

And then you imagine – that from this moon disc and these syllables that are giving forth the sound – that lights go out, make offerings, and so on, to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and all beings, and then come back in, and it transforms into the form of the Buddha-figure. And of course various Buddha-figures are sitting on various things, and so on; that is specific to each practice. So now this is the deity as form. So we imagine that we are now the full appearance of the Buddha-figure. So we basically dealt with mind when we were dealing with the understanding of voidness. We are dealing with speech when we’re dealing with the syllables. Now we are dealing with body in terms of the appearance.

The Deity as Mudras

And then there is the deity as mudras. Mudras are these hand gestures. So again you apply the mudra to the five parts of the body. And again is some type of purification and can indicate activity as well.

The Deity as Signs

And then the sixth deity here (it’s called the six-deity practice) is the deity as signs, it’s called. And that is referring to the rest of the sadhana practice. Okay? So we have the deity as voidness, the deity as the letters or syllables, deity as sound, deity as form, deity as mudras, and the deity as signs. That is the way in which we generate ourselves as the Buddha-figure. And the rest of the practice is going to include various prayers, strong wishes. We find this very much in the Chenrezig practice, for example. May I be able to benefit all beings – this sort of thing.

Meditative Absorption

And there’s more offerings that are always made. Offerings are very important for being able to experience happiness or bliss with an untainted mind, without confusion, with an understanding of voidness. It’s very important with all these practices to maintain the understanding of voidness. When we have meditation on voidness, there are two phases of it. There is the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag). And then the subsequent realization (rjes-thob), it’s called. Sometimes called post-meditation, but you are still meditating. I mean, either you could still be meditating or not meditating, but it’s not always that you’re not meditating. And certainly in the practice you’re still meditating. So it’s what’s subsequent to the total absorption.

So the total absorption: you are totally focused on voidness. That is what you explicitly focus on. “Explicitly” means there is an appearance, the mental hologram, of voidness. And implicitly – in other words, without it appearing – you are not focusing on anything. As I said, you might still see the floor, but you’re not paying attention to that. That’s not part of that mind – that state of mind, I should say.In other words, there is no appearance of the basis of voidness in the total absorption. You are not focusing on me, the appearance of me being void. But on the subsequent attainment, then explicitly we have the basis for voidness, which would be the moon disc with the syllables, or the sound, or the appearance of myself as the Buddha-figure. So that’s what actually appears; that’s what is explicitly known. And implicitly – which means that it’s not actually a mental hologram of it – is the understanding of the voidness of that figure: that it is like an illusion; it seems to appear solidly existent, but it’s not.

And in general when we talk about – in general tantra (this would be the case here in kriya tantra) – that we want to practice method and wisdom together in one state of mind, one state of mind means both of them explicitly. We don’t have them both explicitly here – meaning the hologram of both. So the way that it’s done in general tantra is that the mind, the state of mind, is focused on voidness in the total absorption. That’s what is explicitly there. And that mind doesn’t exist by itself; there is a body as well. So there is a body as the basis. And the body is a body of a Buddha-figure, even though it doesn’t appear. So that’s the way the two are put together. I have a body – I have a body as a Buddha-figure. It’s that body with a mind that has the explicit focus on voidness, even though the body is not appearing. Here this is for general tantra. In anuttarayoga tantra we get more sophisticated ways of putting them together in one moment of one state of mind.

Question: The method aspect would refer to the Buddha-figure?

Alex: The Buddha-figure.

Question: That’s the method aspect?

Alex: Right. Oneself as a Buddha-figure. Because it’s the Buddha-figure that will transform into physical bodies of a Buddha – form bodies of a Buddha. It’s not our ordinary body. But by having our mind generate conceptually a Buddha-figure form, with an understanding of voidness of it, it is in that form that we’ll – eventually we can get our (in anuttarayoga tantra) our energy-winds to generate in that form, and then eventually as a Buddha. Mind gives rise to that as your appearance. Although, mind you, Buddha can appear in any form. It is just a representation, an example.

So we maintain an understanding of voidness throughout, here, at least implicitly: that all of this is like an illusion.

The main practice, then – after we have done all the prayers and the offerings and things like this – is the maintaining of the deep awareness of what’s called nondual profound and clear. “Profound” is the understanding of voidness; “clear” is the appearance, mental hologram. We want to maintain that. And this is done in two steps. And the steps here are first a stabilizing meditation of the visualization. So we are visualizing ourselves as this Buddha-figure, Chenrezig for instance, Avalokiteshvara: one face; four arms; sitting; holding a jewel with the two hands in the middle; and in the right hand a rosary, the left hand a lotus (the upper arms holding them). And what we would do with the stabilizing visualization, we have also in the more elaborate practices in a mandala, so the building.

We would first, as I was explaining yesterday, as Tsongkhapa advised: you get a vague, general visualization of the whole thing. And, within that, then you would practice trying to get individual features of the visualization in focus. Adding one by one, starting from the eyes. In kriya tantra you have two eyes. In anuttarayoga tantra you have three on each face. But here you have two.

Question: Are you talking this moment about the sadhana practice?

Alex: Yeah. Everything that I am talking about this morning is the sadhana practice.

So in the sadhana practice, now you’ve done the offerings, you’ve done the prayers, after you have generated yourself as the Buddha-figure, and now you want to use this practice as a method for gaining shamatha (zhi-gnas), for single-minded concentration. And so you do it on the visualization of yourself as this Buddha-figure. And what we are focusing on is, then, first the vague visualization. And then you fill in, for instance, the eyes, and get the eyes in focus. And then you might fill in the rest of the face. And then get the arms more clear – you know, the body. And then what he is holding – what we are holding – more clear. You add them progressively. And then, if you want to really get complicated, the jewelry that he’s wearing. And then the mandala around you. So, like this, you practice adding more and more detail. If you can do it. If you can’t do it, you do as much as you are capable of doing. It’s a training. It’s a practice. So this is the stabilizing meditation of the visualization.

Vase Breathing

And then the second aspect, the second stage of it, is the meditation of absorbed concentration in which, once you are able to have this visualization with its detail, then you hold the visualization, maintain the visualization, while holding your breath. And you do this with a practice called the vase breathing, which is basically an elaborate yoga way of holding your breath. No need to go into the details of how to do it. But in kriya tantra this vase breathing – holding the breath, basically, in your belly – is a way for gaining concentration. If you try just for a moment to hold your breath, breathe in deeply and hold your breath. Observe your state of mind while you’re holding your breath.


Okay. What is your state of mind while you’re holding your breath? Is it quiet or do you have a lot of thoughts going on?

Participant: Steady.

Alex: It’s steady. It’s quiet. Holding the breath is a way, is a method, used for gaining single-minded concentration in kriya tantra.

Participant: When you have to do a very fine task, you intuitively do it.

Alex: Right. When you have to do a fine task, intuitively you hold your breath. Because, as we explained, the breath is connected with the energies, and the energies are the energies of conceptual thoughts and so on. So if you hold the breath, you hold the energies, and it’s very difficult to have a lot of conceptual verbal thinking at that same time. So you hold the visualization with that.

Okay, there is someone who was doing pranayama. Pranayama breath practices are common in all Indian traditions; it’s not just a Buddhist thing. And they said that after holding their breath longer and longer and longer, eventually they were able to reach a state where they don’t breathe at all or can hold their breath for a very, very long time. Is that an aim? Not specifically. Not specifically. This is just a method. Just a method which is used. It’s not – I mean, in anuttarayoga tantra the vase breathing is a method for being able to bring the winds into the central channel. So it’s used for a different purpose. And there you need to be able to hold your breath quite long, and there are practices for increasing that which are part of the six yogas or six practices of Naropa (Na-ro’i chos-drug). But that’s another level of this type of practice.

Question: On which level of concentration do we start holding the breath?

Alex: That’s really up to you. At least to have some sort of general feeling of the Buddha-figure and maybe a little bit of detail or something. It just helps us to maintain focus, to maintain concentration.

Question: So you make this vase-breathing and still concentrate on...

Alex: With the visualization. It’s a way to keep focus on your visualization. And you’ll find that it helps you to stop mental wandering. Very difficult to have mental wandering while you’re holding your breath.

Mantra Recitation

Okay. Then you do the mantra recitation when you’re tired of doing this type of practice. This is the same in all tantra sadhanas. Once you get to the point where you’ve generated yourself as the deity, before you do the mantra recitation, you really focus on getting shamatha – on getting a stilled and settled mind, getting perfect concentration. And when you are tired, then you do the mantra. A lot of people think the main point is just doing the mantras. But when you are doing the mantras, then you also imagine light going out and benefiting all beings – you know, the activities of a Buddha.

Okay. Now, maybe we can take our short – not long – tea break here and then we’ll continue.