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Developing Our Buddha-Nature Factors through Sutra and Tantra

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, April 2011

Session Four: The Five Buddha-Family Traits

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:53 hours)

Questions and Answers

For our last session, let’s begin with some questions.

Question: You said that without bodhichitta it is dangerous to practice tantra. Does it mean that if we receive a tantric initiation, but don’t have bodhichitta… What does it mean? Should we not practice, and so we renounce our empowerment? And is it actually possible to renounce an empowerment?

Alex: If we don’t know anything about bodhichitta then of course this is quite difficult, if we’ve never heard of it. If we look at the actual texts and the commentaries by the great Tibetan masters, it’s said very clearly that if you do not take the vows during the tantric empowerment, you’ve not received the empowerment. For all the classes of tantra, bodhisattva vows are part of it. And for the two higher classes of tantra, the tantric vows are there as well. In order to take the vows, one has to consciously accept the vows. Just sitting there, having no idea what’s going on, and just repeating, “Blah blah blah” in Tibetan does not constitute receiving the vows.

For the vows to become part of your mental continuum, it has to be a very conscious intentional act. So if we have not done that at an empowerment, then we have just received perhaps the inspiration, what would be called the “blessing” – you took the empowerment as a blessing. In which case, just repeating the mantra there’s no harm. And trying to generate some sort of – if it’s OM MANI PADME HUM – some compassion or something like that, there’s no harm in that. But certainly it would not be appropriate to visualize ourselves in the form of the deity.

Now, in the case of taking the vows quite consciously, it would be pretty strange to take those vows, let’s say the bodhisattva vows, without having any idea of what bodhichitta is. (Although we might have a wrong idea of what bodhichitta is; a lot of people think bodhichitta is just the same as compassion.) But if we took it sort of: “I’ll consciously take it, but I have no idea what I’m taking,” then also it’s a little bit questionable with respect to the bodhisattva vows. Bodhisattva vows – we’re supposed to know what they are beforehand. Tantric vows and monastic vows, particularly tantric vows – the tradition is that you don’t know what they are before, but you have such strong bodhichitta that you’re willing to take anything in order to be able to reach enlightenment quickly. That’s the tradition. Nowadays, they’re all published; everybody knows what they are – if they bother to search on the internet for it, for example.

Now, we might not have not developed much of a feeling for bodhichitta, and it might not be sincere, and I think in most of our cases it is far from being the full proper thing. But if we have a strong aspiration for it, a strong wish to understand it further and develop it, that’s fine. And then try to generate whatever level of understanding and feeling that we have. What I think is important though is to recognize within ourselves that: “I really don’t have the real thing and I need to work on it,” and try to work on it. Which means working ourselves up through the stages of lam-rim, the graded stages. Without the stages that precede it, bodhichitta will not be the real thing. In just a few words: we need to certainly believe in rebirth, want to improve our rebirths, want to get rid of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and then want to become a Buddha so we can help everybody else get rid of it. Well, those aspects are not easy to really, really believe and feel.

The second point that you asked was about putting the tantra practice aside. There are two situations, one in which we have made a commitment to do a daily practice for the rest of our life or to do a certain amount of practice, and other situations in which there’s no such commitment. If there’s no commitment, there’s no commitment; we can either do a little bit of practice or not. But if we’re not doing practice, at least certainly maintain a great deal of respect for the practice. And if we discover, even if we’ve taken a commitment, that we have taken it or engaged ourselves in all of this prematurely, then, to quote my own teacher Serkong Rinpoche when asked that question, he said, using an analogy, he said, “Put the practice up on a shelf.” And that means not literally put it on the shelf but, in our minds, put it away for the future in a very respectful place in our minds, in our intention, with the intention that: “This is a wonderful thing and I hope to get back to it when I’m ready.”

Question: In your book on the Kalachakra, you write that it is possible to come to the Kalachakra empowerment as an observer, without actually taking the empowerment, if we think that we are not ready to practice – we are not ready to take the commitments and so on. In this case, what is the benefit of coming to the empowerment just as an observer?

Alex: Well, that advice that I mention in my book is a direct quotation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the term that he used was neutral observer. He explained that he gives the empowerment, basically, when he’s requested and all the conditions are conducive for being able to give it; in another words, they can really organize it. And for some reason, both historically and it just seems to be almost karmically, the Kalachakra initiation draws huge crowds, much larger than any other empowerment, especially when His Holiness gives it. And His Holiness says that his intention is not actually to give the empowerment, because Kalachakra practice is extremely difficult and advanced. Although, as has happened since His Holiness has been giving it, Westerners seem to be far more interested in actually trying to practice it than Tibetans. They have started the Kalachakra Network; there’s a huge network of people practicing it, getting the texts translated, and so on, showing far more interest than most Tibetans. The practice of Kalachakra is restricted to just a very few small number of monasteries and is not a generally practiced tantra. There’s a Six-Session Kalachakra Guru-Yoga, but that’s something else. The actual sadhana practice is enormous – 722 deities – so, very few people actually can do that.

So His Holiness says that he’s not naive in thinking that he’s giving it and everybody’s going to practice, but rather his point is that it attracts a huge number of people and what is most important are the preliminary teachings that he gives. He usually teaches Thirty-Seven Bodhisattva Practices or some sort of text like that as a preparation, and he says this is the most important aspect of it from his point of view. And I recall at the Kalachakra empowerment in Toronto, Canada, His Holiness taught preliminary texts like this beforehand and there were a number of people who came only for that and then left – didn’t stay for the empowerment – and there were far more people who didn’t come for the preliminary teachings and came only for the empowerment. And His Holiness remarked to everybody that he really respected and appreciated those people that only came for the preliminary teachings and didn’t stay for the empowerment, and he really thought it was most improper for people to come only for the empowerment and not the preliminary bodhisattva teachings.

So just coming as an observer for the empowerment – the main thing is the preliminary teachings – is beneficial in the sense that it’s very inspiring. And coming for the whole thing, you do get the preliminary teaching, which is what His Holiness thinks is the most beneficial. And in the book, I outline some of the guidelines that His Holiness gave in terms of, if you are a neutral observer, what you can do during the empowerment to gain the most benefit from it – not just like sitting back and watching an anthropological event, but you could participate at a certain level without actually taking the empowerment, in terms of thinking of compassion, and so on.

Question: In your books, you quite often say that after achieving enlightenment we still have our individual mind-stream. But on the other hand, all these Buddha-nature factors are, in a sense, universal, and sometimes achieving enlightenment is described as being like a smaller river coming into a large, enormous ocean. So how can we speak in terms of this individual or non-individual thing, because we are describing Buddha Shakyamuni’s mind-stream and Maitreya’s mind-stream as two different mind-streams, not universal, but such things as voidness and others, they’re universal? Right?

Alex: A lot depends on our understanding of the word “universal.” One meaning is that it’s one big ocean, one big thing. Another meaning is that it’s found everywhere, and everywhere there’s an individual instance of it. And so in the case of voidness, for example, there’s the voidness of every individual knowable thing. You can also of course speak about the voidness of the totality of everything, but this applies to everything, so it’s universally applicable – it doesn’t mean that it’s just one big thing.

And the statement that enlightenment or liberation is like all the little streams going into the big ocean… I must confess I’ve never seen that in a Buddhist context; that’s a Hindu context, of atman dissolves and we’re all brahman, the totality of everything. So I would be interested to know the Buddhist source in which you found that statement.

And although the omniscient mind of Buddha Shakyamuni, and the omniscient mind of Maitreya, and the omniscient mind of each of the many Buddhas have the same object, which is everything, that doesn’t mean that they are the same mind. It’s like different mirrors reflecting the totality – each of them reflecting the totality of everything, without that mirror being separate from the totality of everything. One of the lines of reasoning that’s used for demonstrating the individuality of each of the Buddhas – let’s say Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Buddha – is that different beings have built up a karmic connection with either this Buddha or that Buddha, so why is it that only certain beings were born at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni and were able to be so-called ripened by them, and others have not but make prayers to be able to meet Maitreya so that they can be among Maitreya’s disciples? So that indicates that they are individual beings.

This ties in with one of the written questions I was given:

Question: There are many Buddhas that exist already, yet there’s so much pain, suffering, and delusion in this world. I don’t actually mean that being a Buddha is inefficient to this end, but why would any Buddhist think that he or she is to help all sentient beings in an efficient manner when the number of already existing Buddhas cannot put an end to everybody’s suffering?

Which ties in also with the first written question here, which has to do with: What about all the insects and animals and so on? How can a Buddha help them?

Alex: First of all, of course, this is an individual being that, because of previously built up karma, in this particular lifetime has the ripened result – has manifested a body and mind, and so on, of an insect or an animal. It’s not going to always be an insect or an animal. And so, at least from our side, trying to build up this wish to be able to benefit all these beings – including the fly that’s buzzing around my face, and so on, while I’m trying to go to sleep, or the mosquito – in that way, at least from our side, we’re starting to build up the karmic relation. And the relation between the two of us is not a relationship of me killing it, like the mosquito, but the relation of me wishing that it could be free from suffering and be happy. So the type of karmic relation that we build up with that insect or animal – do we shoot it or kill it, or do we at least develop the wish to benefit it? – makes a big difference.

Now, for a Buddha to be able to help others, the power of a Buddha’s enlightenment cannot override the power or the strength of people’s karma. That’s a general sort of law, like conservation of energy – there’s only a certain amount of energy. So a Buddha’s enlightening influence and the influence of people’s karma, that’s the same. One can’t override the other. If it could, Buddha would have liberated everybody already; everybody would already be liberated. A Buddha can inspire others, teach others, but they have to do it themselves, work themselves, to build up these two networks, as we’ve been discussing. (Remember, in terms of Buddha-nature, that all that a Buddha can really contribute to is the third one, in terms of actively Buddha can inspire others, teach others, but people need to build up this positive force.) And one of the ways of course is showing respect, etc., to the Buddhas, so they can be an object for building up positive force. And build up deep awareness by meditating on what Buddha taught. But beings have to do it themselves.

Now, in order to receive the inspiration and teachings of a Buddha, we need to be receptive. Somebody has to be receptive. They have to be open to that Buddha. In a sense, have some sort of karmic relation – if you want to speak in those sorts of terms – with a particular Buddha. And we see that very clearly: Some people are very inspired when we speak about Buddha Shakyamuni, or we speak about Guru Rinpoche, or we speak about the Karmapa or Tsongkhapa or whoever. Some people are very open and inspired almost karmically by Guru Rinpoche, and other people feel nothing from Guru Rinpoche. Some people are completely inspired by Tsongkhapa; other people feel nothing. So that’s coming from the side of the person, not from the side of Guru Rinpoche or Buddha Shakyamuni or Tsongkhapa.

Why do you need Guru Rinpoche or Tsongkhapa if you have Buddha Shakyamuni? It’s the same question. Well, obviously some people can’t really connect with Buddha Shakyamuni but they can connect with Guru Rinpoche, or they can connect with Tsongkhapa, or they can connect with a living guru nowadays. Some people can learn more from reading the sutras of the Buddha, some people can learn more from reading the termas (gter-ma, treasure text) coming from Guru Rinpoche, some people can learn more from reading the commentaries by Tsongkhapa. They’re all necessary.

The guru, as they say, acts as the mirror through which the light of the Buddhas shines forth and actually reaches the disciples. So this sort of karmic connection from the side of the disciple is the reason why you have so many Buddhas and why we would want to also become a Buddha. Because maybe there’s some that can be inspired by us, that I may be able to be the conduit, the mirror, for them through which to shine the various Buddha’s teachings – or Padmasambhava’s teachings or Tsongkhapa’s teachings, and through them the mirror of the Buddha.

So from our side, as is described in the Mahayana sutras, we try to imagine when we teach, when we do some beneficial thing, that we are teaching – or even if we’re reading, that we are reading to an infinite number of beings around us. That is, at least from our side, to try to build up that karmic connection with others; but it has to be built up from their side as well. And we can see the result of this type of thing in terms of how many people show up for a teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and how many people turn up for a teaching by somebody like me. Big difference.

Question: Definitely, many of us don’t have the ideal level of bodhichitta and understanding of voidness. What is the minimal level of bodhichitta or understanding of voidness in order to practice tantra safely?

Alex: We would need the discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna) that comes from hearing. There are three levels of discriminating awareness – vaguely translated as wisdom, but anyway – discriminating awareness that comes from hearing, from thinking, and from meditating. So we would need the discriminating awareness from hearing to start with. So we would need to have read or heard a correct explanation of bodhichitta and voidness, so we know that we got it correct: we’re not trying to generate something which is not at all what voidness is talking about or what bodhichitta is talking about. That for sure you need. So that means having correct knowledge of it and decisive. This is what it means. At least these are the words.

Then the discriminating awareness from thinking will result in understanding it and being convinced that it’s true and that I can achieve this. Now, I doubt that we need to actually achieve that in full. In fact, I think that’s quite difficult to achieve that in full measure. But I would think for starting out with tantra practice, we have to be working on trying to understand it and really working on “Am I fully convinced of it?” Something like that. Whether or not it can be presumption – presumption is “I assume that it’s correct. I don’t really understand it fully but I assume that it’s correct” – probably you could start with that as well.

Question: In Buddhist practice, and especially in tantra practice, the root guru is very important. And so the question is: What is the definition of a root guru? And is it possible to have a few of them, or should we have only one root guru?

Alex: The root guru is not necessarily our first guru and not necessarily our main teacher, the one that we receive the largest amount of teachings from – can be, but doesn’t have to be. The root teacher is like a root – that’s why it’s called the root – not the seed from which something starts, but the root. A root of a plant is that through which it derives its nourishment. So that nourishment is referring to inspiration. Who is the teacher that really inspires us the most to practice, to keep vows, to avoid destructive behavior, and so on? Who do we find the most inspiring? Who moves us the most? Put this together with what we spoke about concerning Buddha-nature. And this could be someone that we never really have individual personal interaction with. Many people find His Holiness the Dalai Lama or the Karmapa, or someone like that, to be the most inspiring one and they’ve never had individual private interaction with them. It can even be someone who is no longer alive whom we either knew when they were alive or we never even met when they were alive.

Usually you wouldn’t say that a historical figure – like Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), or Tsongkhapa, or Milarepa, the first Karmapa, or whatever – that they were my root guru. That would be a little bit unusual, to call them by that term root guru, but certainly we could find them extremely inspiring. It’s usually a living person, either of this generation that we know personally or may be… Some people consider, let say, the Sixteenth Karmapa, even though they never actually met him and he’s already dead, as their root guru. But it’s much stronger if it’s a person that’s alive. I think we can all appreciate the difference between, for instance, being in the presence of a teacher when they are teaching live, even if it’s in a huge audience, and just watching a video or just listening to a recording or just reading their book. Being in the actual presence of the teacher is much, much more inspiring. Same thing as the difference between being at a live concert and listening to a recording. Big difference, isn’t there?

So, like that, the root guru is usually somebody that we have at least had some sort of live contact with and is the most inspiring. And it could be more than one person. We don’t have to grade them and say, “Oh, from this person I get this much inspiration. And that one, I get that much,” and so on. Although the role of the teacher to give instruction, to correct us when we’re making mistakes, and give us personal guidance, and so on, is very, very important, the most important role of the teacher is to inspire us – important, as they say, at the beginning, middle, and end of the practice.

There’s one further written question:

Question: You said that while in a hell, bodies don’t have any limits as to their perception of pain, as opposed to human bodies. As far as I know there’s no such thing as an independently existing hell, so it’s just the production of the mind. Does that mean that a mind hurts itself, creating a hell for that purpose?

Alex: Well, the hell realms of course don’t exist independently of the karma built up on mental continuums. That would be partially responsible for their existence, but many other factors – I mean elements and so on. But we did see, if you recall, how karma ripens, and we saw that it ripens into a number of different things. So the unhappiness, the pain, or suffering is just one of the things that come from karma, from negative karmic force. But also a physical basis, a body, that could support that pain and suffering. An environment in which you live and that supports what’s happening to you, so the actual hell realms. And results corresponding to their cause in your behavior and what you experience – like in one of the hells, everybody killing each other with weapons and experiencing being killed by others with weapons.

So if all of these things that ripen from karma are evident in terms of a human rebirth, why wouldn’t they be evident also in other types of rebirths, such as the hells? (Evident means not only exist, but it can be perceived.) Do they exist independently? No, of course not. They exist dependent on karma, on the beings that are there, on the elements that they are made of – earth, water, fire, air (these types of elements from the Buddhist point of view). Are they made of the elements that our particular sensory apparatus as a human is capable of perceiving? No, because we have… that sensory apparatus has ripened from karma to be a human, so it can only perceive a certain range of types of elements. Hell beings have sensory apparatus that could perceive the elements that make up the hell realms.

Although from the Buddhist point of view of logic it is not a valid argument to argue by analogy (it doesn’t necessarily prove something – that just because it’s like this in the human realm, coming from karma, that it also should ripen by analogy like that for a hell existence – that’s not listed as a valid means of knowing something), nevertheless I don’t see any great objection to that way of analyzing, any great fault. And as is often said, to say that they don’t exist simply because “I don’t think so” is not a very valid reason. Or “I don’t understand how it could be.” That’s not a valid proof that something doesn’t exist. OK?

Any other questions?

Question: If we’ve received, let’s say, several tantric empowerments, and at some point we find that one of them is the most effective – and if we practice only that, and study only that system of practice, it would be the most efficient and we will attain enlightenment more quickly – is it possible in this case to decline all other empowerments and dedicate ourselves only to this one?

Alex: Yes, absolutely. That is the classic way of practicing – His Holiness the Dalai Lama has explained like that – that in the beginning, depending on our capacity, that it is helpful to receive many different empowerments, because it gives us a little bit of a taste of different practices and so on. And of course some tantric practices have more emphasis and more detail on one aspect of the practice, and some have more detail and emphasis on another. So this is helpful. They can reinforce each other. But when we are ready, to quote His Holiness, to devote 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to the practice to attain enlightenment, and we’re really are going to do it – off to the cave and we’re going to do it for the rest of our life – at that point, you have to choose one.

And at that point, do we put aside the other tantric practices? I don’t know what is the usual advice in that situation. One can think of… two things come to my mind, both from Serkong Rinpoche. One, the same thing of putting it up on the shelf, that you have respect. It’s like you’ve gone from one stage of the practice to the next, so now there’s no longer the need to do this initial step that gave you your foundation. And the other piece of advice he gave – to a very strong practitioner of Yamantaka, the forceful form of Manjushri – was “Can’t Yamantaka recite OM MANI PADME HUM?” So, like that. It’s not necessarily contradictory to do a little OM MANI PADME HUM, even if we’re intensively practicing some other deity as “This is our path to enlightenment.” But we’re not talking about doing all the detailed practices. You have to focus on one when you are sincerely ready to devote yourself 100% to attaining enlightenment; that’s the point.

It’s the same question in terms of Dharma centers. Which Dharma center do we go to? And it’s becoming more and more of an issue, of a difficult situation, for people in large cities around the world where there are 20, 30, 40 different Dharma centers from different teachers and different organizations. Which one do you go to? And if we go to the internet there’s even more available. So how do you choose? And in the beginning, I don’t think that there’s any harm and I think it’s beneficial to shop around. In other words, to visit a few of them and to see what it’s like – How does it suit us?

And of course there are many variables here, which makes it very difficult. It’s not just the variable of the teacher, the variable of the teachings. The teacher might not be a very good teacher of the teachings of that lineage. And there are the people who are there in the center that could influence our choice. The organization of the center could influence our choice. What our friends are doing could influence the choice: somebody that we know goes there. Or geographic location: just happens to be less time to get there from my house than the others. So this becomes very difficult because then the question is: Which one of these criteria is the most valid? And we need to feel some sort of connection with, hopefully, the teachings and the teacher – not so much “Well, I like the room that it’s in,” or “It’s close,” or something like that.

It’s the same criterion in terms of the tantra practice: you need to feel some sort of connection with it. And what does it mean to feel a connection? Generally a feeling of being comfortable. It’s like you try on different pairs of shoes – and this one really feels comfortable, this one is too tight, or this one for some reason or another doesn’t seem right. It just feels right. But it’s only when we are really… we know what’s available, and we really feel that this one suits me, and I’m ready to put my full-time effort into its practice, that then you just stay within one line. But to commit ourselves to just one tantric practice, or to just one center, or one this or one that, without really having some idea of what’s available, sometimes will work – you fall in love and marry the first person that you meet that you fall in love with – and other times it doesn’t work. But we don’t have to try everything. It’s not like a buffet, where you feel as though you have to try everything there, otherwise you don’t get your money’s worth.

There are also some tantric deities or practices or lamas, and so on, that instinctively you feel an aversion to: “I don’t feel attracted to this at all.” Don’t force yourself. But we also have to really avoid the extreme of just being a collector of initiations: the more that you get, the more holy you become; that sort of attitude – that you have to go to everything just because it’s there. That also can lead to a lot of problems. But whatever we try, whether we’re talking about a tantra practice or a Dharma center, it’s important to always maintain respect for them, even if we decide this is not for me; because in fact some people derive benefit from them. And as Shantideva said, if we wish everybody to be benefited and to be happy, it’s contradictory to think that if I’m not the one that benefits, then we are jealous, and “I don’t like the fact that they are benefited by somebody else,” by something that doesn’t suit me, for example. In other words, rejoice that they’re benefiting from a different practice, or from a different center, rather than just being filled with a very critical mind. That’s not very easy to do, however, especially if you have strong self-cherishing.

So we have spent quite a lot of time on questions, but I think that is helpful if we don’t have so many opportunities to ask questions.

The Five Buddha-Family Traits

The only other thing that I wanted to explain, in terms our topic concerning Buddha-nature and how we work with it in sutra and tantra, concerns a different division of the Buddha-nature factors. We covered the more common division scheme, of these two networks and this being-able-to-be-inspired aspect.

Another scheme is in terms of five aspects (sometimes referred to… well, let me leave that for a moment):

  1. body
  2. speech
  3. mind
  4. good qualities
  5. and activities.

We all have a body, we all have some ability to communicate, we all have a mind. In some rebirth states the body might be super subtle, but anyway, we have these. We all have some sort of qualities, and everybody has some sort of activity, something that they do.

When we hear the term “Buddha-families,” that word “family” there is actually the Sanskrit word for caste, and it refers to a family trait, a characteristic, a Buddha-nature factor that will allow us to become a Buddha. So the whole discussion of these Buddha-families is dealing with Buddha-nature, actually. So don’t think that it’s talking about something totally different. It’s talking about the same issues that we’ve been speaking about, the factors that will enable us to become a Buddha, but just from a different scheme.

So although we could say body, speech, mind, qualities, and activity, these five traits, these Buddha-family traits, more common is to divide each of them into the five Buddha-family traits: so five divisions of body, five division of speech, of mind, etc.

Five Types of Deep Awareness

Now, in terms of sutra, the main emphasis is on these five divisions of mind. This is the system of the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga), what’s often just referred to as the five types of Buddha wisdom, but that’s a bit of a misleading term because they’re Buddha-nature factors – everybody has these.

  1. We have mirror-like deep awareness (me-long lta-bu’i ye-shes), which is to take in information.
  2. Equalizing (mnyam-nyid ye-shes), which is to consider different pieces of information together, so seeing patterns, to see various individuals as “These three are women,” to put them together, this type of thing. Right? This is just to put them together, this type of awareness.
  3. Individualizing deep awareness (sor-rtog ye-shes), to know the individuality of something.
  4. Accomplishing deep awareness (bya-grub ye-shes), which is to engage with it to do something, like to eat the food.
  5. And the sphere of reality deep awareness (chos-dbyings ye-shes), which is basically to know what something is, its conventional truth and its deepest truth – how it exists.

So they work together: You take in the information, and then the deep sphere of reality (what it is). You put things together (the equalizing), and then sphere of reality – they’re all women – what they are, what is the thing in common. Individuality (we specify something), and deep awareness, the sphere of reality (what it is). Accomplishing (to do something), sphere of reality (what to do) – eat.

So this is how everybody’s mind works, including the cockroach. It might not know words in order to know what something is, but it knows to eat food, and it can identify a piece of food, and it can see that several things are all food. Which means that even in a cockroach rebirth, we ourselves, our minds, will still function with these five aspects; they’re Buddha-nature aspects.

Five Types of Deep Awareness for a Buddha

On a samsaric level, they would be very limited in their scope. As a Buddha, if we can get rid of all the limitations, all the obscurations, then they would function as the deep awareness of a Buddha. And when we speak about the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, deep awareness is not just referring to deep awareness of the two truths but also these five types of deep awareness:

  1. So, as a Buddha, mirror-like takes in all the information (so, omniscient), all the information about everything accurately.
  2. Equalizing. A Buddha’s compassion and love, etc., goes out equally to absolutely everybody. And a Buddha’s understanding of voidness – the voidness of everything, equal.
  3. Individualizing. A Buddha is aware of every single sentient being individually, as an individual.
  4. Accomplishing. A Buddha knows to do something with everybody – namely, to help bring them to liberation and enlightenment.
  5. And sphere of reality. A Buddha knows what to do, and of course the two truths.

Five Disturbing Emotions

When these five types of deep awareness are mixed with confusion, grasping for truly established existence, and so on, unawareness, then on a samsaric level we get the five disturbing emotions:

  1. So rather than taking in information, it’s sort of clouded and we just don’t know. So we get naivety (gti-mug, Skt. moha).
  2. When the equalizing is clouded over, then we don’t see the equality of ourselves and others and we get pride (nga-rgyal, Skt. mana): “I’m so much better.” We don’t see that we’re equal, everybody’s equal.
  3. When individualizing deep awareness specifies one particular person or one particular thing and it gets clouded with this confusion, we feel tremendous longing desire (’dod-chags, Skt. raga) – “I have to have it” – or attachment if we already have it.
  4. When this accomplishing deep awareness is clouded over, mixed with confusion, and when we see somebody else actually doing something, we feel jealous (phrag-dog, Skt. irshya) about it rather than rejoicing.
  5. Sphere of reality deep awareness, where we discriminate between what something is and what something is not. We know what it is: it’s this and it’s not that. And when that’s mixed with confusion then that aspect of what something is not becomes a strong rejection of the thing (khong-khro, Skt. krodha) – anger, repulsion.

So in sutra practice we would try to dissolve that confusion from these disturbing emotions to access the deep awareness that is underlying it. This is actually the mahamudra method. Mahamudra method, according to the Gelug and Kagyu way of practicing it, is done either on a sutra or tantra level – so it’s in common – depending on which level of mind we’re using. It’s only the Sakya tradition that only teaches a mahamudra method on a tantra level. Gelug and Kagyu teach it on both a sutra and tantra level.

The Five Aggregates

We can also speak in terms of a correlation of these five with the aggregates:

  1. So the mirror-like and naivety would be associated with the aggregate of form (gzugs-kyi phung-po, Skt. rupa-skandha). Information deals with forms of physical phenomena – shape, color, sound, etc. – the aggregate of forms.
  2. Equalizing deep awareness, which could become clouded over into pride, is correlated with the aggregate of feeling (tshor-ba’i phung-po, Skt. vedana-skandha) – feeling happy, unhappy. Why exactly it’s put together there, I don’t have complete certainty about, but I think it has to do with the fact that on a Buddha level we have equal love, compassion, feeling of happiness, and so on, toward everyone.
  3. Individualizing deep awareness. You specify something, it can become desire for it – “It’s so special.” That’s also correlated with the aggregate of distinguishing (’du-shes-kyi phung-po, Skt. samjna-skandha), where you distinguish something from the background.
  4. Accomplishing deep awareness, which could be distorted into jealousy, is correlated with the aggregate of other affecting variables (’du-byed-kyi phung-po, Skt. samskara-skandha). The most prominent one of those being intention or urge; it’s karma – it brings us to do something. So accomplishing deep awareness.
  5. And the sphere of reality deep awareness, which can be distorted into anger – remember, this has to do with what something is and is not: so what it is, what it is not – this is correlated with the aggregate of consciousness (rnam-shes-kyi phung-po, Skt. vijnana-skandha). Primary consciousness is aware of the essential nature of something – is it a sight? is it a sound? is it a smell? is it a taste? – what it is, what’s the general essential nature of something. That’s what it’s aware of, primary consciousness.

The Five Aggregates for a Buddha

So in the same scheme of the five Buddha-families, we have, on a samsaric level, our five tainted aggregates, and on the Buddha level – if you purify them, get rid of all the confusion and stuff – then you will have five untainted aggregates. A Buddha also has a system of five aggregates:

  1. All the forms that a Buddha can appear in.
  2. Feeling of untainted bliss.
  3. Distinguishing absolutely everything with omniscience.
  4. Other affecting factors – infinite compassion, infinite love, infinite activities to benefit everyone.
  5. And like consciousness and omniscient awareness of a Buddha.

So this can be understood on sutra level, tantra level – same.

Buddha-Families in Tantra

Now, in tantra – and to a lesser or greater extent, depending on which class of tantra – we also have these five Buddha-families. Well, in general, you have different number of Buddha-families explained in the different classes of tantra. No need to give you all the detail. Well, might as well mention it, since I remember it: three Buddha-families in kriya and charya tantra, four in yoga tantra, five usually in anuttarayoga (although some systems have six, like Kalachakra).

If we use this scheme of five so-called Buddha-families, these five Buddha-family traits, as we have in anuttarayoga tantra, then… You remember we said that you could divide body, speech, mind, activity, and good qualities – each of them into these five groups, these five traits. We’ve up until now just been speaking about dividing mind into these five, or a general scheme of the aggregates into these five. We can divide body into these five; those take the form of the five so-called “dhyani Buddhas.” (Dhyani Buddha is a term made up by some Westerner about a hundred years ago; it’s not actually a Tibetan or Sanskrit term. Remember we had this word family trait. Buddha-family is actually the word caste.) So in it we have a main figure, you have a female figure, you have a male bodhisattva, you have a female bodhisattva; this caste or family is made up of different members. So what does all this mean?

We have these Buddha-family traits, these five Buddha-family traits. Each of them covers many, many different aspects or dimensions – a body dimension, a speech dimension, an aggregate dimension, and so on – and it can generate a samsaric level of it, it can generate an enlightenment level of it, in all these different dimensions. And of course it would be correlated with elements and with senses, and so on; there’s a huge amount of correlation that’s made.

In many of the anuttarayoga tantra practices, we imagine within our body many different deities, like in the Guhyasamaja system. (Many of you received that in India this last year from His Holiness, or some of you received it.) And if it’s not within the body, it’s various figures within the mandala. And it’s not just Guhyasamaja; it’s in tons of different tantras in all schools. So the purified form of the aggregate of forms or the aggregate of feelings, or so on, is appearing in the form of:

  1. the aggregate of forms in the form of Vairochana
  2. the aggregate of feelings in the form of Ratnasambhava
  3. distinguishing as Amitabha
  4. and other affecting variables as Amoghasiddhi
  5. consciousness as Akshobhya

This is in the system of Guhyasamaja. Obviously in different tantra systems, different Buddhas are associated with different aggregates. It’s not always exactly the same system. As we all know, there are many, many variants within Buddhism. This is just one example. So we need to understand these types of teaching and practicing within this context of Buddha-family and Buddha-nature.


In summary, we can develop our Buddha-nature factors to achieve enlightenment through either sutra or tantra, and we’ve seen that these Buddha-nature factors are also involved with our experience of samsara. So we have all the working materials within each of us; it’s just a matter of what we do with them, based on intention, motivation, dedication.

That brings this course to a close. Let’s end with the dedication: We think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of us all.

Thank you very much.