“Blessings” or Inspiration?

In answer to questions by Theodore Whelan

Whelan: It seems to me that the majority of Westerners who study Tibetan Buddhism still continue to use the extremely ambiguous term blessing. To me, and probably to a fair few of them too, there is no doubt that that term carries theistic connotations. It sounds as though an Almighty Being with omnipotent powers can bestow a realization to those individuals who have faith, regardless of the individual’s networks of positive or negative force.
The term inspiration, as in the sense of an “uplifting,” makes sense to my Buddhist framework of understanding, as it doesn’t conjure up any theistic connotations. However, I am still trying to understand the totality of all possibilities of what it refers to.
During a recent conversation with somebody who is sticking to the term blessing, they said that the term inspiration sounds as though it only applies to the description of the process whereby one focuses on a person who has set a constructive encouraging example. When one focuses on that person, one is “inspired,” in the context of merely being encouraged to follow in their footsteps. And even though being encouraged to follow somebody’s footsteps can result in one taking a profound change of direction, the term inspiration doesn’t seem to imply anything else that the Tibetan term chinlab (byin-rlabs, Skt. adhiṣṭhāna) could possibly refer to. Anyway, this person’s comment, along with other information I have randomly amassed since I first met the Dharma, has affected my understanding of the totality of what the term chinlab is conveying. The questions I’m asking are aimed at my understanding of the different possibilities of what this term could also refer to.

Inspiration in the Context of Guru-Yoga

My first question is that during any practice in which we imagine our teacher (let’s say His Holiness the Dalai Lama) in his own form, or imagine he is in the form of an historical figure, and we focus on him with fervent regard, and simply focus on that, or combine that with practices like prostration and safe direction while imagining the bountiful field of positive force, or the practice of Vajrasattva, or the practice of guru-yoga, does the above description of what inspiration refers to solely occur? In other words, are we more likely to merely be encouraged to follow in his constructive footsteps because we are focusing on him and his qualities in a more focused way than normal? Or, on top of that “encouraging” process, even if our teacher may be thousands of miles away in India, does our mind subliminally conjoin to the teacher’s mind, so that the teacher’s uplifting energy subliminally interacts with our mind, which then acts as a circumstance to ripen our positive karmic force from our previously committed constructive actions that otherwise might not have ripened?

Definitions and Connotations of the Pertinent Translation Terms

Dr. Berzin: To answer your question, let’s first look at the meaning of the original Sanskrit term adhishthana and how it was traditionally translated into Chinese and Tibetan.

  • “Adhishthana” in Sanskrit means, literally and in its most general usage, a “position close to someone,” usually a ruler, and implies a position of power or authority. Thus, in a sense, it is a position of high rank that a ruler confers on someone. In receiving that rank, the person receiving it comes closer to having the qualities of the ruler conferring it.
  • The Chinese translation, sheshou (摄受), makes the term into a verbal noun – the “conferral of a position that one takes up or upholds.”
  • The Tibetan translation, byin-gyis brlabs, commonly abbreviated as byin-rlabs (pronounced “chinlab”), emphasizes the process that takes place with the conferral of such a position. The first syllable, byin, is sometimes explained as meaning a “brightening,” and sometimes as “ability”; while rlabs connotes “power” and brlabs, deriving from the verb rlob-pa, means “to transform,” specifically to transform to a better state. Thus, byin-gyis-rlabs is often defined in Tibetan as a “transformation, by means of a brightening, into a state of possessing power and ability,” or the conferral of such a transformation. Although rlabs is also the Tibetan word for “waves,” traditional explanations do not refer to this meaning of the word.
  • Thus, in some cases I have translated the term into English as an “uplifting” or “ennobling.” The translation “inspiration” that I have more frequently used connotes the force that brings about such a transformation or uplifting.

The original Sanskrit term and these various translations of it that I have cited, then, refer to a position of heightened ability and power conferred by someone or something, and which resembles the position of the person or thing that confers it. Also connoted are the process of transformation that brings one to this position (namely, an uplifting), the action that brings about the transformation (namely, a conferral of it), the force that brings about this transformation (namely, inspiration), and how the transformation occurs (namely, by means of a brightening).

The Role of Positive Force, Buddha-Nature Factors, and Tendencies for Positive Mental Factors

Your question, then, concerns the details for how such an uplifting transformation takes place. This is not such a simple question to answer, since the term chinlab is used in many different contexts to refer to a wide variety of processes and things. Let’s look first at inspiration in the context of guru-yoga, as in your question.

You are only partially correct when you suggest that the uplifting of the strength of a good quality in a disciple takes place as the result of the ripening of positive force (bsod-nams, Skt. puṇya; “merit”) on the disciple’s mental continuum, which has been activated by inspiration from a spiritual teacher. But there are many other causal factors involved that are also on the mental continuum of disciples and that are also activated by inspiration from the teacher.

Positive force is a causal factor for the attainment of a higher level of a good quality or the attainment of a realization. But the tendencies for mental factors, such as love and compassion, which constitute these good qualities, and the tendencies for the discriminating awareness with which to have a realization are also activated and strengthened by a teacher’s inspiration.

We must add to that a teacher’s inspiration also activating various Buddha-nature factors as well. These include the innate abilities of all beings to know things, to communicate, and to act, as well as the Buddha-nature factor of the mental continuum’s ability to be inspired and uplifted to a higher state. In fact, the network of positive force on every mental continuum is also a Buddha-nature factor.

Voidness of the Inspiration Process

The uplifting transformation arises dependently on many causes and conditions. Thus, to understand the process of inspiration, it is essential to be very clear about the voidness of the three circles involved: (1) the person conferring the inspiration, (2) the one receiving it, and (3) the inspiration itself. None of these can be established as existing by their own power, from their own sides, independently by themselves. In other words, the existence of a conferral of inspiration cannot be established without there also being someone who confers it, someone who can and does receive it, and something, namely inspiration, that is conferred and received. In other words, the existence of each of the three circles can only be established dependently on each other.

But not only that, the existence of each of the three can also only be established dependently on its being the referent object of the words and concepts for it. What is “inspiration?” It is only what the word inspiration refers to, on the basis of someone who confers it, someone who receives it, and something that is conferred, all three of which can only be established in relation to each other and in relation to the words and concepts for them.

“Inspiration,” then, is not some sort of “thing” that is passed from one person to another, like a football, that then hits a goal (some positive force or a tendency for a good quality) and, as a result, gives one a higher score. So, what we need to avoid is conceiving of the process of inspiration as the linking of the mind of a spiritual teacher with the positive forces, positive tendencies, and Buddha-nature factors on the mental continuum of a disciple, by means of a link through which something is transmitted, as if the two minds, the link, and the transmitted inspiration were each a findable “thing” existing on its own, under its own power, as if encapsulated in plastic. Nevertheless, we can conventionally describe the inspirational process as one of inspiration from a teacher being received by a disciple and awakening or stimulating various factors on the disciple’s mental continuum. By means of this, the disciple becomes transformed to a more highly developed state that resembles that of the teacher.

In the case of guru-yoga, the spiritual teacher does not consciously confer the uplifting transformation. The disciple becoming inspired arises dependently on not only the actual practice of guru-yoga, but also on:

  • the compassion and love of the teacher to bring happiness to all limited beings and to alleviate their suffering, plus the teacher’s aspiring prayers and dedication of positive force to be able to accomplish this purpose,
  • the actual good qualities of the body, speech, and mind of the teacher,
  • the disciple’s firm conviction (mos-pa) that the spiritual teacher in fact has these good qualities and appreciation (gus-pa) of the teacher’s kindness,
  • the receptivity of the disciple to receiving inspiration, as expressed by his or her making fervent requests,
  • the positive force, the Buddha-nature factors and the tendencies for the positive mental factors on the mental continuum of the disciple,
  • the Buddha-nature factor that the mental continuum of the disciple can be uplifted to a higher state.

The process of becoming inspired is then facilitated by the disciple reciting the name mantra of the spiritual teacher or of the founder or a prominent member of the teacher’s lineage. This helps the disciple to be more focused and concentrated. The process is additionally facilitated by the disciple’s visualization of inspiration, in the form of colored lights and nectars, flowing from the teacher to him or her and filling his or her body. This helps to generate an actual feeling of becoming inspired.

But again, we must emphasize that no item in this entire process can be established as existing by its own power, on its own, as if findable as the referent “thing” corresponding to the words and concepts for it. Nevertheless, if all the causes and factors are present, the process of inspiration occurs.

The Power and Ability to Be Inspiring as a Characteristic Feature of Someone’s Good Qualities

One more point needs to be clarified. Although the existence of the good qualities of the spiritual teacher’s body, speech, and mind cannot be established by the power of anything on the side of the qualities themselves or on the side of the teacher’s mental continuum; nevertheless, the good qualities do conventionally have characteristic features. These characteristic features, however, are not findable even on the level of the conventional truth of the good qualities and they do not establish even the conventional existence of the good qualities. As is the case with the good qualities themselves, these characteristic features are established merely by the words and concepts for them.

The late 8th-century Tibetan translator, Kawa Paltseg (sKa-ba dPal-brtsegs), indicates these characteristic features in the definition he gives for “chinlab,” which we have been translating into English as “inspiration.” He wrote, “Inspiration is the power and force that exist abiding in whatever points of the Dharma there are on the pathway minds of an arya.”

An “arya” is a highly realized being with non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths in general and, in the context of arya bodhisattvas, non-conceptual cognition of voidness specifically. “Points of the Dharma” refer to the realizations and actualizations that exist as aspects of the true pathway minds on an arya’s mental continuum: these are what the Dharma signifies. In other words, one of the characteristic features of an arya’s good qualities is that they are inspiring: they have the power and strength to inspire others.

The reference here is undoubtedly to the division of four kinds of inspiration (byin-gyis brlabs-pa bzhi) or four kinds of arya inspiration (phags-pa byin-gyi rlabs-pa bzhi). Although I have been unable to locate the sutra source and explanation of the four, let me just list them and propose tentative explanations:

  • inspiration of the truth (bden-pa’i byin-gyis rlabs-pa) – perhaps referring to the authenticity and veracity of the realizations and actualizations of an arya’s true pathway minds,
  • inspiration of generosity (gtong-ba’i byin-gyis rlabs-pa) – just a guess: perhaps referring to the far-reaching generosity that is one of the features of an arya bodhisattva’s true pathway minds, attained with the first-level bhumi-mind,
  • inspiration of pacifications (nye-bar-zhi-ba’i byin-gyis rlabs-pa) – perhaps referring to the true stoppings of emotional obscurations or of both emotional and cognitive obscurations, the attainment of which true pathway minds bring about,
  • the inspiration of discriminating awareness (shes-rab-gyi byin-gyis rlabs-pa) – perhaps referring to the discriminating awareness of not only voidness, but of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, which is the main feature of true pathway minds.

[See: The Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths]

Inspiration Occurring Effortlessly through Enlightening Influence

One further point to note about these types of arya inspiration, which is relevant as well in the case of guru-yoga, is that inspiration occurs through the process of enlightening influence (phrin-las). “Enlightening influence” is sometimes translated by others as “Buddha-activity,” but it is not activity in the ordinary sense of “doing something.” “Enlightening influence” occurs automatically, without any conscious effort or intention.

Maitreya describes enlightening activity in The Furthest Everlasting Continuum (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra) with the analogy of the shining of the sun. The good qualities of a Buddha, he explains, exert an enlightening influence on others, without any conscious effort or favoritism, just like the sun shines without any conscious effort or favoritism. Nevertheless, in order to receive warmth from sunshine, limited beings need to come out into the sun. Similarly, a disciple needs to open up to the inspiration that shines forth, without any effort or favoritism, from the good qualities of his or her spiritual teacher, exerting an enlightening influence on others. In his text, Maitreya refers to “conscious effort and favoritism” with the term “conceptual thought,” meaning “preconceptions.”

Inspiration from an Historical Figure in a Spiritual Lineage

Further, if we are subliminally conjoining and interacting with the teacher’s mind, are we conjoining with and interacting with the historical figure’s mind too – the one whose form we imagine our teacher in? Is this the case also concerning any other figure we imagine and request and open ourselves to, whether or not we imagine our teacher to be in that form? In other words, can we directly aim our minds at conjoining and interacting with the mind of a Buddha or of an historical figure without using our teacher as a kind of conduit?

The process through which inspiration occurs, explained above, is exactly the same whether it refers to inspiration from a spiritual teacher, from a lineage founder or figure alone, or from an entire spiritual lineage spanning from Buddha Shakyamuni himself to our spiritual teacher. Remember, there is no such thing as findably existent inspiration passing, like a football, from one person to another, whether directly from Buddha or from our teacher to us or along a line of successive teachers stretching back to Buddha. Because of that, then distance in space or time between any of them and us is irrelevant. The inspirational process simply occurs, arising dependently on all the relevant causes and conditions. No findably existent “connection” exists linking our minds with any of their minds.

As mentioned above, one of the crucial causes for the inspirational process to occur is the love, compassion, and prayers that the inspiring person has made, whether the inspiring person is our spiritual teacher, a lineage master, or Shakyamuni Buddha. These prayers were to be able to benefit all limited beings in the ten directions and over the three times – past, present, and future. Because of that vast “Mahayana” scope, then if we accept that these prayers were successful in helping to bring about the good qualities attained by these persons, we must also accept that the enlightening influence of their prayers continues to possess the power and ability to benefit us, now as well, in the form of inspiration.

Shantideva, in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-’jug, Skt. Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra) indicates this point clearly:

(IX.35) Just as a wish-fulfilling gem and a wish-granting tree fulfill all wishes; likewise, through the power of disciples to be tamed and of prayers, the Enlightening Form of a Triumphant One appears.
(IX.36) For example, just as when a garudika healer has passed away after actualizing a wooden healing post, it still can pacify poison and the like, even when a long time’s expired since his passing;
(IX.37) So too, when a bodhisattva has passed into nirvana, after actualizing the healing-post (body) of a Triumphant One in accord with bodhisattva behavior, it still can perform all that’s to be done.

Which Positive Forces Get Stimulated to Ripen through Inspiration?

If we do subliminally conjoin and interact with the teacher’s or a Buddha’s mind and that acts as a circumstance that ripens our positive force into realizations or whatever, does the realization, or whatever ripens, happen kind of naturally in an innately progressive order found within every mind or does it happen in a kind of hodgepodge way according to a zillion karmic legacies? Or does a Buddha have complete control of what will ripen first according to which will be most conducive for our spiritual growth?

First of all, we need to differentiate here the various types of positive force. If the positive force from constructive actions is not dedicated for liberation or enlightenment, then it is a samsara-building positive force. If it is dedicated for our attainment of liberation, it is a liberation-building positive force; and if it is dedicated for our attainment of enlightenment, it is an enlightenment-building positive force. Only samsara-building positive force is a karmic force. The latter two types of positive force are so-called “pure-builders” and are not samsaric karmic phenomena.

[See: The Two Collections: Two Networks]

Further, positive force ripens into many things: our experiencing of happiness, our experiencing of the five aggregate factors of a rebirth situation, our feeling like acting in a manner that resembles our previous constructive acts that built up this force, our experiencing of others acting toward us in the way that we acted, our experiencing of a certain type of environment, and so forth. In addition, there is the positive force that ripens into the attainment (thob-pa) of a realization (rtogs-pa). Let us leave aside this last type of ripening of positive force for the moment and consider the other types of ripening first.

When we speak about inspiration acting as a cause for the activation and strengthening of a tendency for an intermittently functioning good quality, such as compassion, I do not believe that any of the three types of positive force – samsara-building, liberation-building, or enlightenment-building – is directly involved. These three types of positive force are involved, however, when we consider the positive force that ripens into our feeling like helping someone, motivated by that compassion. We may be applying our compassion in the pursuit of some samsaric goal, such as when our constructive act of helping someone is motivated primarily by desire for that person to like us. Or we may be applying our compassion in the pursuit of liberation or enlightenment, such as when our constructive act of helping someone is motivated by renunciation or bodhichitta.

As is the case with the receiving of inspiration, the ripening of the tendency for the mental factor that constitutes a good quality and the ripening of a positive force also occur as dependently arising phenomena. In other words, which tendency for which good quality ripens and which karmic force for feeling like doing which type of action ripens depend on a vast multitude of causes and conditions. No one has control over this process: not us, not our teacher, and not even Shakyamuni Buddha himself.

In the case of the tendency for a good quality, inspiration merely causes an intermittently ripening tendency for one of them to ripen into the development or enhancement of that good quality. The good quality that develops or strengthens in our mental continuum will be similar to the inspiring good quality of the person who inspires us.

But, there are innumerable tendencies for positive mental factors and Buddha-nature factors on our mental continuums that will enable us to develop good qualities resembling those of the spiritual teachers and Buddhas. There are also innumerable positive forces or potentials to act in ways similar to constructive ways we have acted before. Moreover, each of these tendencies, factors, and potentials can ripen into an assortment of different results depending on the various factors that can affect their strength. Which one ripens, when it ripens, the strength with which it ripens, the form that the ripening takes, how long that which ripens is manifest on our mental continuum, how what ripens changes from moment to moment, and so on depend on the various additional mental factors accompanying our experience in each moment. They also depend on the external circumstances in which we find ourselves in each moment. None of these factors can be established as existing by the power of something findable on their own sides. The ripening simply occurs dependently on the interaction of all of them, and certainly not dependently on the power of just one of them, such as a Buddha’s intention.

When we consider the positive force that can ripen into the attainment of a realization, inspiration can cause an intermittently ripening tendency for discriminating awareness to ripen into a heightened degree of this mental factor, thereby enabling the realization. The analysis of that type of ripening is the same as what we have already applied in relation to compassion. Positive force, however, can also be ripened and enhanced by inspiration so that it brings about the attainment itself. Again, the attainment of which realization and so forth arises dependently on many other factors as well, also similar to our above analysis. Again, which of the three types of positive force – samsaric-building, liberation-building, enlightenment-building – is activated depends on the motivating factors that accompany our meditation or whatever practice it is that precipitates our attainment of that realization.

In the case of realizations that are simply deep understandings or insights into various points, such as impermanence, the shortcomings of samsara, and so on, there is no innate progressive order. The various presentations of them, such as the lam-rim graded stages of the path, suggest several beneficial progressive orders, but practitioners may gain insights in orders that differ even from these. In the case of the five pathway minds – building-up (the path of accumulation), applying (the path of preparation), seeing (the path of seeing), accustoming (the path of meditation), and no more training (the path of no more learning) – there is an innate progressive order. Each of the five pathway minds can only be attained on the basis of the attainment of the immediately previous one. The same is the case regarding the generation stage (bskyed-rim) and complete stage (rdzogs-rim) of anuttarayoga tantra practice.

But again, we must understand that there is no such thing as a progressive order established by the power of something on the side of the realizations themselves or on the side of their attainments or on the side of the mental continuums that have the ability to attain them. It is clear, then, that we need to understand dependent arising and the voidness of cause and effect in order to begin to understand how inspiration helps bring about the ripening of karmic force.

Other Usages of the Term Chinlab

Although in the case of inspiration from a spiritual teacher, lineage master, or Buddha, the process occurs without any conscious effort on the part of the source or recipient of the inspiration, there are other situations in which the term chinlab refers to a conscious process of making an “uplifting transformation.” These occur within the context of tantra practice and there, the process of making such a transformation may be termed an “ennobling.” Some translators render chinlab in this context as “consecrate,” but such a term connotes making something sacred, which introduces a perhaps misleading non-Buddhist flavor to the term.

One manner in which the ennobling takes place is with an enhancement of good qualities. An example is in Guhyasamaja practice when we “ennoble” our body, speech, and mind through elaborate visualizations of calling forth Buddha-figures, making requests to them, and then dissolving them into other Buddha-figures visualized within us as representing our body, speech, and mind.

Another manner of ennobling occurs in almost all anuttarayoga tantra practices, when we “ennoble” our reproductive organs with visualizations of ritual implements and seed syllables inside them. Similarly, in Vajrabhairava practice, for instance, we “ennoble” our cognitive stimulators (the eye sensors, ear sensors, and so forth) by visualizing seed syllables or Buddha-figures on them. In these cases, we are not transforming these features of our body, which is already visualized as a Buddha-figure, into something that they were not before. Rather, as explained with the Sakya teachings of inseparable samsara and nirvana, each of these aspects of our bodies has two levels of appearance: an ordinary, so-called “impure” appearance and a “pure” appearance. With these ennobling procedures, we are merely revealing the pure appearance level that has always been there.

Tantra practice also includes “ennobling” items that are not parts of our bodies – specifically, various types of offerings and, in anuttarayoga tantra, the vajra and bell that we use during the rituals. Here, we consciously perform the uplifting transformation. In the case of the inner offering (nang-mchod) made in anuttarayoga tantra, for example, the uplifting transformation entails four steps:

  • Elimination (bsang-ba) of interferences from the physical offering cup situated before us. This is enacted through visualization of forceful figures chasing away interfering spirits from it.
  • Purification (sbyang-ba) of the impure appearance of the cup and its contents as an ordinary cup with tea inside it and both having truly established existence. This is enacted through the dissolution of this impure appearance with focus on its voidness of impossible ways of existing.
  • Generation (bskyed-pa) of an appearance of the cup and its contents as various types of meat and bodily substances, representing the aggregates and elements of our ordinary bodies.
  • Ennobling (byin-gyi-rlabs) of the meat and bodily substances through visualizations representing the purification, realization, and flaring (sbyang-rtogs-sbar gsum) of them. “Purification” is of their color, odor, taste, and potential. “Realization” is of them as nectar granting freedom from all sicknesses and immortality, and thus entails visualizing them as transforming into nectar. “Flaring” is the increase of the nectar so that it becomes inexhaustible.

In the case of outer offerings (phyi-mchod) made of waters, flowers, incense, and so forth, the visualizations for the four-step “ennobling” are much simpler.

One last example of an ennobling of an item not connected with the body is with special pills, also called “chinlab,” perhaps translated here as “ennobled pills.” These are tiny pills, made of dried flowers, herbs, and other substances, over which a spiritual master, usually together with a monastic assembly, recites thousands of mantras while focusing on special visualizations with the blissful awareness of the voidness of them. At the conclusion of a given number of repetitions of the mantra, the spiritual master blows on the pills and thus “ennobles” them. When those with confident belief in the ennobling ability of these pills swallow one of them, they feel themselves uplifted and ennobled by them. Some varieties of such ennobling pills help to eliminate obstacles and interferences from the person who swallows them; others help to heal the person from some sickness. Again, we must stress the importance of understanding the voidness and dependently arising nature of everything involved here, in order to understand correctly how swallowing ennobled pills, chinlab, benefits anyone.

Mantras as a Shaping of the Subtle Energy-Winds

There is another source of information I am extremely confused about. Regarding how mantra works, I understand the theory of how it shapes the subtle energy-winds, resulting in certain states of mind. And how mantra can also cause the subtle energy-winds to enter and dissolve in the central channel, gaining access to the subtlest energy-wind and clear light mind.
Despite those theories on mantra practice, for some extremely peculiar reason, those teachings rarely get taught in certain places, whether one attends teachings in India, Nepal, or the West. Even though some geshes or khenpos from all four Tibetan traditions have received their education within reputable monastic universities, for some peculiar reason they often only teach another theory of how mantra works. They say mantra works by “blessings” (or that’s how the translator translates it). They say that when we recite the mantra, we receive blessings, because the mantra is bestowed with power from the enlightened speech of the Buddhas.
I am overwhelmingly confused. Is there a reason why the shaping of the subtle energy-winds theory isn’t commonly taught instead, or alongside this “blessings” theory?

The explanation of mantras as a shaping of the energy-winds in order to facilitate getting them to enter, abide, and dissolve in the central energy-channel derives from the teachings on vajra-recitation (rdo-rje bzlas-pa). This is a very advanced practice, done on the speech isolation (ngag-dben) stage of complete stage (rdzogs-rim) practice in anuttarayoga tantra. A full explanation of vajra-recitation and speech isolation is found in such texts as A Lamp for Illuminating “The Five Stages” (Rim-lnga gsal-sgron), Tsongkhapa’s commentary to Nagarjuna’s text, The Five Stages (Rim-lnga, Skt. Pancakrama), concerning the five-stage complete stage practice of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. Since this is an extremely advanced topic, it is neither frequently studied nor taught. However, since the basic principle behind this practice can help to make mantra recitation in general more understandable to Westerners, I mention it in my explanation of the theory of mantras.

The Uplifting Transformative Power of Mantras

If there is truth in this “blessings” theory, I’m trying to understand in how it can work. It’s just a guess, but is this how it works?
For example, when we recite OM MANI PADME HUM, do we automatically subliminally conjoin our mind with the minds of an unbroken lineage of masters from and including Shakyamuni Buddha or another Buddha? Whereby the uplifting energy from that whole unbroken lineage interacts with our mind in such a way that it acts as a circumstance that ripens our positive karmic force in such a way, resulting in compassion to arise in our mind? And the same process continues throughout every conceivable mantra and their relevant results?
If there is a process whereby we subliminally conjoin and interact in this way, is it merely enough to recite the mantra? Or to receive this uplifting energy, do we have to add some other causes to the causal mixture for the process to work? For example, could this process work if any person in the world who has no connection to any unbroken lineage, but instead stumbles across a mantra in a Dharma book and starts to recite it? Or does the mantra have to have come directly from a transmission from a valid link in a chain from an unbroken lineage of masters from and including a Buddha?
If it does have to have come from an unbroken lineage in order for this process to work, do the masters have to have obtained results from the mantra in order for the uplifting energy of the mantra to continue to pass through the unbroken lineage? For example, if some student was orally transmitted the mantra from a teacher who had obtained the results of the mantra, but that student had never practiced that mantra, let alone achieved results from it, could that student then transmit that mantra to other people, thus keeping the lineage blessings unbroken for the other people to tap into?
Is it solely the uplifting energy of a Buddha coming through the unbroken chain of the lineage, as though the unbroken lineage is acting like a conduit, and each master of the lineage is a section of that conduit, a conduit for a Buddha’s uplifting energy to pass through? Or is the uplifting energy a mixture of all beings and the Buddha’s uplifting energies who are included in that unbroken lineage?

The explanation of how the uplifting transformation works through mantra recitation is the same as that for how it works through guru-yoga. Here, however, we need to add some of what I just explained concerning ennobling items that are not parts of our body – in this case, the sound of mantras.

Mantras are examples of enlightening speech, uttered by Buddha appearing in the tantras in the form of various Buddha-figures. As enlightening speech, the sound of the mantras has been “ennobled” through the Buddha’s compassion, love, bodhichitta, prayers, and realization of voidness. Thus, mantras are inspiring sounds and, as Kawa Paltseg defined them, they have the characteristic feature of possessing a certain power and ability. But, as we have explained before, there is nothing findable on the side of the sound of the mantras that, by its own power, establishes the existence of this power and ability. The power and ability arise dependently on innumerable other causes and conditions.

When repeated by someone with confident belief in the power of mantras, mantra recitation can activate and strengthen the tendencies for various good qualities, such as compassion or discriminating awareness. This activation and strengthening is greatly facilitated if, preceding and accompanying the mantra recitation, we also practice an appropriate type of meditation, such as one with visualization, analysis, and so forth. Moreover, depending on the motivation that accompanies the recitation – a samsaric one, renunciation, or bodhichitta – the corresponding positive force for the attainment of a realization is enhanced.

If you ask whether the recitation of a mantra accompanied by disbelief in the power of mantras can bring about positive results, I doubt that it can. If the recitation is accompanied by indecisive wavering that is more in the direction of confident belief in their power, then the recitation brings a weaker result than when it is accompanied by full confident belief.

Do all the persons in the lineage of the oral transmission of the mantra need to have obtained results from its recitation? No. The mantra’s inspiring ability and power arise dependently on merely the fact that it was originally uttered by the Buddha. Of course, any realizations by members of the mantra’s lineage of oral transmission will enhance the inspiring ability and power of the mantra, but such further strengthening is not a necessity. The lineage members need merely to ensure the accuracy of the words and syllables of the mantra, neither omitting nor adding any.

The same is true in the case of the oral transmission of the words of a scriptural pronouncement of either a Buddha or a subsequent spiritual master. After all, nothing that Buddha proclaimed was written down at the time of the Buddha. Written transcriptions of Buddha’s words only began centuries afterward. Thus, the only way to ensure the accuracy of these enlightening words was for each generation of disciples to hear them recited by someone from the previous generation who had memorized them, based on that person having heard them recited by someone from the generation previous to them. And for that to work properly, the chain of persons transmitting the enlightening words, whether of a mantra or of a scriptural pronouncement, must be unbroken all the way back to the source of the words, the Buddha. So, for example, with permission from His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, I passed on the oral transmission of Serkong Dorjechang’s special lineage of Tsongkhapa’s Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po) to the Second Serkong Rinpoche. I did this based solely on the fact that I had received its oral transmission from my teacher, the First Serkong Rinpoche. I had never actually studied the text, let alone gained any realization of its meaning.

What about reciting a mantra without having received its oral transmission or by receiving its oral transmission from someone who has not actually received its authentic oral transmission? I think in this case, there may be some inspiring power, but it will be weaker than if we received it through an unbroken lineage of oral transmission. For example, Shantideva wrote in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior: 

(VIII.118) …out of great compassion, the Guardian Avalokiteshvara has elevated even (the power of) his own name to dispel the fears of wandering beings, (such as shyness) in front an audience

“Elevated” here is the term chinlab. But again, we must avoid thinking that the power of the mantra is established by something findable inside the sound of the mantra.

What about if the oral transmission of the mantra is with the wrong pronunciation or if we pronounce it incorrectly? I think in this case, there is no difference in the power and ability of reciting it in these inaccurate ways. After all, the Tibetans do not pronounce certain words of mantras the way the Indians did. For example, Tibetans pronounce the Sanskrit word vajra as “bendza” and the Mongols pronounce it as “ochir.” Nevertheless, we cannot say that Tibetans and Mongols reciting mantras while pronouncing “vajra” as “bendza” or “ochir” have not had any attainments or that their attainments were lesser than those of Indians pronouncing “vajra” as “vajra.” The inspiring ability instilled by Buddha on the sounds of the mantra is still transmitted despite the deformation of its pronunciation. This is because there is still an unbroken transmission of the mantra. After all, the oral transmission of texts originally written in Sanskrit is considered to be unbroken even when the transmission is continued with the recitation of the texts in translation, such as in Tibetan or Chinese. The transmission line is like an individual mental continuum: each moment is neither the same nor totally different from the previous moment. Each moment arises merely dependently on the previous moment as an unbroken continuity of it, with nothing findable passing from moment to moment to establish the existence of the continuity.

What about if we or someone else makes up a mantra and we recite it while generating compassion? Its recitation might help us to remain focused on compassion, but if we know that it did not derive from Buddha, we will certainly not gain Buddha’s inspiration from it. This is the reason why, although we might visualize ourselves in the form of Mary from Christianity as an aid for focusing on love and compassion, it is totally inappropriate to call this a Buddhist tantric practice. Moreover, it is highly disrespectful of Christianity to do so, since Christian leaders would not approve of such practice and would probably consider it heretical. This is not the same as the case of Buddhist tantras using figures also found in Hindu tantras, such as Sarasvati. This is because the usage of this figure in the Buddhist tantras derives from a Buddha, and Hinduism accepts Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. Thus, Hindus do not find this usage disrespectful.

What if we have confident belief that a mantra made up by just anybody actually derives from Buddha and we recite that inauthentic mantra? This case resembles the example of the Tibetan monk who was requested by his mother to bring back a tooth of the Buddha when he went on a pilgrimage to India. The monk forgot his mother’s request, but finally remembered it just before he reached home. In desperation not to disappoint his mother, he picked up a dog’s tooth that he found on the ground, cleaned it, and wrapped it in a beautiful cloth and presented that to his mother, declaring that it was a tooth of the Buddha. The mother had confident belief that it was indeed Buddha’s tooth and, through inspiration from it, achieved many spiritual attainments.

In this example, the mother was inspired by Buddha merely through her confident belief, without that inspiration being transmitted through the dog’s tooth. Similarly, I think that if we confidently believe that a mantra derives from Buddha, when in fact it does not, that our confident belief in the Buddha would bring us inspiration. The same might be true if we receive the oral transmission of an authentic mantra, thinking that the transmission has been unbroken, when in fact it had been broken.

The Unconscious Interaction of Buddhas with Our Minds

Can highly realized teachers or Buddhas conjoin and interact with our minds, in a way that they are infiltrating our train of thoughts, without us being aware of it? For example when we formally engage in a line of reasoning aimed at conceptually cognizing voidness, can they interact with our minds in such a way that they can “nudge” our train of thoughts here and “nudge” them there so to keep our line of reasoning on track as much as possible so we eventually get closer to conceptually cognize voidness?

The texts always emphasize the importance of making requests to the Buddhas and our spiritual teachers for inspiration. Making requests for inspiration is a very strong way of demonstrating our receptivity and wish to be inspired. This implies that if we do not make requests for inspiration, we are not so open to receiving inspiration. For this reason, I do not think that we can receive inspiration from Buddhas and so forth without our being aware of it. Even when we receive inspiration, it is not as though some findable “thing,” namely inspiration, is infiltrating our minds and protecting us from making mistakes.

Inspiration When Regarding Our Spiritual Teacher as a Buddha

When some texts state that we should perceive all appearances as the guru’s Dharmakaya, even though the guru isn’t an actual Buddha, but merely like a Buddha, are we at all subliminally conjoining and interacting with a Buddha’s uplifting energy?

Yes, I believe we are. If, on the basis of confident belief that a dog’s tooth is the tooth of a Buddha, someone can receive the inspiration of a Buddha; how much more so do we receive Buddha’s inspiration when we have confident belief in our spiritual teacher as a Buddha? In the case of our spiritual teacher, we are focusing on his or her actual good qualities and recognizing them as Buddha qualities. By focusing on enlightening qualities, we receive the inspiration of a Buddha. There is a Tibetan saying, “If we focus on our spiritual teacher as an ordinary person, we gain the inspiration of an ordinary person. If we focus on him or her as a Buddha, we gain the inspiration of a Buddha.”

Meeting Rigpa, Pure Awareness, Face to Face through Inspiration from a Dzogchen Master

Within the dzogchen literature, it states that a dzogchen master can directly introduce the student to rigpa, pure awareness. One way to do this is through inspiration. When this happens, does one’s mind subliminally conjoin with and interact with the dzogchen master’s uplifting energy in such a way that it ripens huge amounts of positive force all at once? Does a dzogchen master have to have certain unique qualities for this process to occur? Or does the master’s mind, whom we have a profound karmic connection with, act like a conduit for the uplifting energy of a Buddha to pass through, and it is the Buddha’s uplifting energy that interacts with our mind?

First of all, it is important to understand the technical term involved here, ngo-sprod, which you have cited in its usual translation as “to introduce.” The term actually means “to meet face to face.” Inspiration from a dzogchen master can act as one of the causes for enlightenment-building positive force on our mental continuum to ripen into our attainment of a realization of rigpa, deep awareness. This pure awareness, primordially unstained, has been underlying each moment of our experience with no beginning. The realization of this pure awareness is a meeting with it, face to face, in such a manner that pure awareness “knows its own face,” which means we are now fully aware of its actual abiding nature.

The occasion of our meeting rigpa face to face may be precipitated by our dzogchen master explaining about rigpa in words – either in the context of a ritual ceremony or outside such a context – or even by his or her making a certain gesture without saying anything. But since others may hear such words or see such gestures without experiencing, as a result, a face-to-face meeting with rigpa, our own meeting of rigpa face to face arises dependently on many additional factors, including inspiration from the dzogchen master.

The most important additional factor is that we need to have built up an enormous amount of enlightenment-building positive force through having successfully performed, in previous lives and/or in this life, the shared and unshared preliminary practices (ngondro), and developed at least an advanced level of concentration, bodhichitta aim, and correct conceptual understanding of voidness. In addition, we need to have received tantric empowerments, taken the related vows, and reached a certain level of success in the practice of visualization and mantra recitation on the generation stage (bskyed-rim) and in practices involving the energy-winds and energy-channels (rtsa-rlung) on the complete stage. On such a basis of an enormous build-up of enlightenment-building positive force and enlightenment-building deep awareness, as well as through the practice of the various steps of dzogchen meditation, then through the power of the dzogchen master’s inspiration and without any further effort, we may come to meet rigpa face to face. This meeting face to face, however, needs to proceed through the usual stages of dzogchen meditation: first accessing and recognizing the alaya for habits (bag-chags-kyi kun-gzhi), then effulgent rigpa (rtsal-gyi rig-pa), and finally essence rigpa (ngo-bo’i rig-pa).

[See: How to Meditate on Dzogchen, Part 2]

The process with which inspiration brings about an uplifting transformation so as to help enable us to meet rigpa face to face is the same as that which we have already explained in regard to other examples of the power of inspiration. In this case, the dzogchen master’s own attainment is in itself inspiring and, in addition, the master acts as a conduit for the inspiration of the entire lineage, going back to Buddha, to have an impact on us. But, of course, this occurs without anything findable, with existence established from its own side, passing from Buddha to one master and another, and then on to us – neither a findably existent “inspiration” nor a findably existent “realization.”