The six-session yoga practice is a way of helping us to fulfill our commitments from anuttarayoga tantra initiation, by reminding us of the vows that we’ve taken and also the nineteen closely bonding practices, or damtsig (dam-tshig), to make a close connection with the five Buddha-families.
Just to recite these bonding practices doesn’t – these damtsigs – to recite something that falls in that category is not sufficient. As my teacher Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey always used to say, that if we’re standing out in the rain and we say, “I take refuge in this cave,” but we don’t actually go into the cave, just saying, “I take refuge in the cave” doesn’t prevent us from getting wet; it doesn’t help. And so, like that, we need to actually do in our daily lives what we say that we are doing in this recitation. Like, for instance, being generous, practicing the four types of giving. At least have the willingness to give. Remember Shantideva explained that the perfection or far-reaching state of generosity is not the actual act because, if that were so, then Buddha hadn’t perfected it because there’s still people in need, people who are poor. What’s important is the willingness to give. But not simply the willingness to give; if we actually have something that can be helpful to others, we give.
These nineteen closely bonding practices help us to purify the obscurations from the five different aspects of our Buddha-nature. Remember samaya (close bonding practice) is to actually do something, and a vow is to not do something – to restrain from doing something. So it’s not so convenient to call a samaya a vow; that confuses the two. So that’s the difference, the classification.
We can discuss these Buddha-nature factor in terms of body, speech, mind, good qualities, and activities. And we can also speak just in terms of mind, and then we have the five types of deep awareness. We also have a correspondence with the five aggregates, and when these get confused – or mixed together with grasping for inherent existence and self-cherishing – then we get the five types of disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes.
There are certain practices that we can do which will help us to overcome these disturbing emotions. Like, for instance, four types of generosity to overcome being miserly and being arrogant: “I am better than everybody, so I don’t want to share or give anything to anyone.” This type of practice helps us to overcome that, so that then we can use the full potential of this aspect of Buddha-nature that underlies it – which would be the equalizing awareness, to see that we are all equal: “I am not better than anybody else.” That allows us to be equally compassionate and loving toward everyone; to help all beings, not just some.
So these nineteen practices, which are emphasized very much in the six-session practice, are not just an arbitrary list of things, but they are very important practices on the path to enlightenment – to enable us to use our full potentials of Buddha-nature.
When we think of the so-called Dhyani Buddhas – these five Buddhas: Vairochana, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, and Akshobhya – it is important to realize that they represent all these aspects of Buddha-nature that we’ve been talking about. They’re not just talking about a group of Buddhas that have come into the mandala and are hanging out there. It’s not an arbitrary thing at all. So they are very significant, and they represent many, many different levels of aspects that we are working with.
We start the practice, like any practice – start our morning practice – by cleaning the meditation room. Sweep. Dust. Make it orderly, not a messy room, because if our environment is messy, and out of order, and dirty, that affects very much the state of the mind; the mind is going to be disorderly. And also, when we clean, this is showing respect. If you have an honored guest coming, like the Buddhas, then you want to have the place clean. And, similarly, it is showing respect to what we are doing. Making it clean. Everything in order.
Atisha – when he was old, his attendant said, “Atisha, please. You’re too old. You don’t have to clean your meditation room. I’ll clean it for you.” And Atisha said, “And am I supposed to ask you to eat for me as well?” From eating, you get nourishment yourself. From cleaning the room, you get a certain state of mind yourself, not when you have somebody else do it for you.
Then we set up the altar. We’re not talking about an altar that we sacrifice a lamb on, but just a place for making offerings. It’s just a shelf, the top of your dresser, the top of a bookcase – something like that is quite sufficient. Usually you put a nice piece of cloth on it and some sort of representation of the Three Jewels – whether it is a statue, a picture, a painting, whatever. I mean, you can do this obviously much more elaborately, but just something to represent the Three Jewels. More elaborately, you could have something to represent the body of a Buddha – so, like a statue – a book to represent the Dharma, and a stupa to represent the Sangha. Or body, in terms of the statue; speech, in terms of the book; a stupa, in terms of mind. But that’s more elaborate. Just all in one is perfectly fine. Just some sort of Buddha representation is sufficient.
And then we make some sort of offerings. This is very important if we can do. And what’s quite sufficient is just a bowl of water. It doesn’t even have to be the seven offering bowls. Just a bowl of water, a glass of water, a cup of water is sufficient. Obviously we can do more elaborately; that’s very nice. But at least offer something. A symbolic offering. This is Atisha’s advice: at least offer some water.
Then we sit on a proper meditation seat. Proper posture. So, again, depending on what type of posture we use, different types or sizes of cushions are more comfortable. If we’re sitting cross-legged, what is going to help to prevent our legs from falling asleep is if we have our backside slightly raised. No need to go into all the details. Tibetans, following the Indian style, sit cross-legged.
And so you’ve arranged the seat. Then you do like we do in the beginning of a class: You quiet down by focusing on the breath. You reaffirm the motivation – what are we aiming for? And usually we make three prostrations and then sit down. What we do in the beginning of the class is also helpful, in terms of making the conscious decision that during this meditation I’m going to try to concentrate. If my mind wanders, I’m going to try to bring it back. If I get sleepy, I’m going to try to wake myself up. Otherwise we just rush into the meditation and then have a period of mental wandering rather than a period of meditation.
And then we start the practice. All of this is preliminary.
Reaffirming our Understanding of Voidness
It is essential before starting our practice also to reaffirm our understanding of voidness. Everything in tantra practice has to be done within the understanding of voidness. So that means to clear out our concepts and appearances of ourself in our ordinary form of: “Oh, I’m tired. And my legs hurt. My back hurts. And I have a cold,” and all this sort of stuff. All our daily thoughts. “I have to do so much work today,” and all this sort of junk that we identify with. Clear that all out. This is not my true identity. There is no such thing as these things as truly existent and there’s a “me” that is identified with this. It’s not that I have another, true identity, that this is the wrong one. There is no such thing. There are no such things as true identities. You don’t want to truly identify with being the Buddha-figure either. If you identify with a Buddha-figure as your truly existent identity, then it’s no different from a crazy person thinking that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra.
Being Mindful of Pure Appearances
So clear all of that out, and stay with the understanding that there’s no such thing as true existence, true identities. And, within that, reestablish the visualization of ourselves as the yidam that we are practicing, the Buddha-figure that we’re practicing. We are trying to maintain this visualization – this feeling of ourselves as this Buddha-figure – all the time. All day long. That’s one of the most difficult aspects of tantra practice, to remain mindful of that. Not always think of ourselves in terms of our ordinary appearance, with wrinkles, and gray hair, and pain in the lower back. In other words, we’re keeping our focus all day long on our Buddha-nature, not on our ordinary samsaric form. So we reestablish this visualization, particularly if we didn’t instantly think of that when we woke up in the morning.
And we visualize the place around us as a pure land, which means a smooth flat plane, made of blue beryl. Beryl is – I mean, that’s usually translated as lapis lazuli, but actually it is a different stone – but it is blue, dark blue, spotted with gold flakes. Don’t imagine this as cheap linoleum on the kitchen floor. Blue is for dharmadhatu, the blue sphere of reality. And it’s spotted with gold – within that sphere of reality of the clear light mind – spotted with gold: it has all the good qualities, complete. And it’s smooth of all faults and obscurations. So this represents the state of mind that we are in. That is the environment. So this environment represents the environment of the state of mind that we’re in. We’re not just talking about: go to Buddhist Disneyland and do your visualization there. Smooth roller-skating rink. It’s a state of mind.