Six-Session Yoga: Refuge and Bodhichitta

Visualizing the Spiritual Master

When it comes to visualizing the objects of safe direction, of refuge, then we visualize the spiritual master in the form of the yidam (the Buddha-figure) or in the form of Shakyamuni Buddha. But more comfortable here would be in the form of the yidam.

This can be any of the yidams, but it should correspond to what we are visualizing ourselves as. The most general form, the generic form that will be most comfortable to be valid for all yidams, is the system that comes from Guhyasamaja. Guhyasamaja is called the King of Tantras, and in the commentaries of Guhyasamaja come the whole mechanism for understanding anuttarayoga tantra. All of the mechanisms for understanding tantra come from it. Out of every topic that Tsongkhapa wrote about, what he wrote the most about is Guhyasamaja. Many volumes on it.

In Guhyasamaja, the main deity takes on many forms. I mean, similar forms, but it is given many names. Slight differences in the form, but it’s actually one basic form. It has slight, slight variants – whether it’s smiling, or with fangs – but basically the same. And the main figure can be called Vajradhara, or Vajrasattva, or Akshobhya. And so that’s why when we have this six-session practice, when you have figures – the guru in the form of Vajradhara, then we become Vajrasattva – this is the Guhyasamaja system.

Vajradhara and Vajrasattva are both blue. Don’t think that we’re talking here about Vajrasattva as in the white figure used for purification. It is not that. Blue Vajrasattva, as in Guhyasamaja, and with one face, two arms. So this would be the simplest visualization that we can do, the most standard one. And regardless of what tantra we’re practicing, this one is comfortable for it.

But we could substitute Kalachakra, for instance: the teacher is Kalachakra, ourselves as Kalachakra. This is the way it is done in the Kalachakra version. Similarly, we could visualize both as Yamantaka or whatever figure we are practicing. It doesn’t matter. Vajrayogini. Whatever you want. It doesn’t matter. It’s similar to the fact that the hundred-syllable mantra for purification has many forms: There is the straight form of Vajrasattva – that’s the Guhyasamaja system. There’s Herukasattva – that’s the Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini systems. There’s Yamantakasattva – that’s the Yamantaka system. Just changing a few syllables. They’re all totally equivalent. There’s the Yamantaka system, there’s Padmasattva that comes with Guru Rinpoche, and all these systems. “Sattva” means “being” in Sanskrit, and the Tibetans understand it as “having a mind” – a heroic being with a mind – the Tibetans really expand it, but the Sanskrit simply means a being.

The Symbolism of the Throne

So we have the spiritual teacher in the form of the yidam – let’s say Vajradhara here – and sitting on a throne. The throne is supported by eight lions. So they are on the corners of the throne. I mean, each side has two corners, so you have eight. And they have one paw up, holding the throne, and one paw down on the floor – from their front paws. And they are alive. They’re not paintings, and they’re not statues, they’re not stuffed. They are alive, and they are chasing away interferences. And on the throne there is a lotus, and then a flat moon disc in the center of the lotus. And then on top of the moon disc, a sun – flat sun disc. Like cushions.

In the text Uttaratantra by Maitreya – the Furthest Everlasting Stream – it speaks about the eight qualities of the Buddha, eight qualities of the Dharma, eight qualities of the Sangha. And the eight lions represent these sets of eight qualities. Three sets of eight. And the lotus, moon, and sun represent renunciation, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness. Or in terms of anuttarayoga tantra, the three seats have another level of meaning – the lotus, moon, and sun – they mean the illusory body, clear light, and the unified pair of the two.

Visualizing the Sangha and Dharma Gems

Then, if we want to visualize an elaborate form, then we can visualize the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas all around the central figure, representing the Sangha refuge. They’re all sitting on the same throne – a very large throne – but everybody has their lotus, moon and sun. So everybody is on their own set of three cushions. And, in elaborate form, all the figures have in front of them a little table, and on top of it the texts that they have taught or written. That represents the Dharma.

But, alternatively, we can visualize in a simpler form just the guru-yidam as incorporating all Three Gems. So the guru’s mind is the Buddha refuge, his speech is the Dharma refuge, and his body is the Sangha refuge. In Lama Chopa (the Guru Puja) you have, inside the central figure, all the various parts of the body are the different Dhyani Buddhas and bodhisattvas and so on; that’s also speaking in terms of the body being the Sangha, representing the Sangha.

Now it’s very important that we visualize or imagine the guru-yidam in front of us as a live figure. Alive – not stuffed and not a statue – and three-dimensional, but made of transparent clear light. Serkong Rinpoche said if that’s very difficult for us to do – because, I mean, the form is as this Buddha-figure – if that’s a little bit difficult for us to imagine, this Buddha-figure (particularly Kalachakra, with all the arms and so on) being alive, the guru in that form, we could also just picture the guru in his or her actual form, ordinary form. But that’s only if we can’t do it as the yidam, if that really becomes too artificial or difficult for us. The point is it’s alive, in clear light. So even with the ordinary form, we imagine clear light.

Taking Refuge

Then we start with taking safe direction, putting a safe direction in our lives. And in order to actually sincerely say, “I’m putting that direction in my life,” we need to have the causes for it. So we always repeat the refuge formula three times:

Before we recite it the first time, we imagine that we’ve actually fallen off a cliff into the worst rebirth states and that we are suffering. Then we think of the qualities of the Three Gems and the safe direction that they offer to get out of it. And so with that motivation, with that emotional state, then we have the motivation. That’s the aim. The aim is: “I’m going to put that direction in my life, to get out of this terrible situation that I’m in.” Then it has meaning. There’s some feeling behind it. I take safe direction. I’m going to take safe direction from the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Highest Assembly – that’s the Sangha. And it doesn’t mean to my enlightenment – that’s wrong, the translation – it means to my purified state. It’s talking about the three types of bodhi. Talking about liberation. Till I get liberated. Either liberation as a shravaka arhat, pratyekabuddha arhat, or bodhisattva arhat, or Buddha.

So the first time: I’m in this terrible state. Or, if it’s difficult to imagine worse rebirth states, just that I’m really in a terrible situation in my life. My life is going nowhere; it’s just going down and down. Doing more and more negative things. And it’s horrible. I don’t want it to be like this. I really dread it continuing like this. And here the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha offers a direction out of that. So that’s the direction that I want to go in. Refuge. That’s common to Hinayana and Mahayana. Not to enlightenment; we’re talking about liberation.

So the first repetition, we’ve fallen off the cliff. Second repetition, we are on the edge of the cliff, about to fall off. Losing our balance and about to fall off into a terrible situation. And “Ah! Here’s the direction to get out of it.” And then that’s the second repetition. And then with the third repetition, we are some distance away from the edge of the cliff, but we are sliding down toward the edge. And we don’t know when we are going to fall off. We don’t know when our death is going to come. We’re heading gradually toward that direction of falling off into a hopeless state. And so, there, again, use the direction to avoid sliding off the edge. These are very powerful – they’re states of mind – for really getting a sincere feeling of safe direction. It comes out of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s lam-rim.

So, with that, we repeat this first line three times:

I take safe direction, till my purified state, from the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Highest Assembly.

This fulfills the three bonds for Vairochana, of the three taking safe direction in the Three Jewels.

How to Think of Worse Rebirths

Is this related to lower rebirths?

Yes, that’s in facat what the instructions are talking about. You’ve fallen into a worse rebirth. Or you’re about to fall. Or you have the karma to fall, and you’re sliding towards it; you don’t know when it’s going to happen.

But worse rebirths are difficult to work with for us. I mean, it has to be real; otherwise it doesn’t develop any sort of emotional feeling. Just think: “I’ve fallen into some horrible samsaric situation in which I’m compulsively driven by my addiction to worldly things,” whether that’s constantly making money, or sex, or drugs, or whatever it is. Or “I’m just on the edge, about to fall into that.” Or “I have such strong karma for it” – we’re sliding toward that. “And I really want out of that. And this is the direction that I’m taking out.”

Use your imagination: “I have become an old lonely person who’s very bitter. And my life has been meaningless. I’ve done nothing positive. I’m sick and nobody takes care of me. And my mind is just filled with complaining all the time, by negative thoughts, never anything positive going on.” Is that we want at the end of our lives? This is what we end up with? Imagine you are in that situation, or you are about to fall into that situation. They’re about to send you into the old age home, and there you’re going to just sit and be absolutely miserable, and bitter, and complaining. Or we have the karma: “My life is heading in that direction. I don’t want that when I’m old. I want to have some positive thing that I’m doing, even if I spend my old age saying OM MANI PADME HUM, like Tibetans – something positive.” Use your imagination.

Use your imagination. Make it real. Something that moves your heart. The Fifth Dalai Lama wrote that when you meditate about these worse states of rebirth, don’t meditate on it as if you were watching a show: that’s there’s the worse states, over there, and we’re meditating by watching them. You imagine it by actually feeling, trying to feel what it would be like to be like that. How horrible that would be. Being a cockroach, and anybody who sees you just wants to step on you. Or a fish in the ocean, and all these other fish are around there trying to eat us. Horrible. Not nice. I don’t want to experience that.


Then we refresh the causes for bodhichitta. Bodhichitta damtsigs. So we imagine that our mother – and if it’s not your mother, it’s somebody that you really love who has been really kind – that your mother has fallen into this worse situation. Or she is about to fall into it. Or, the third time, that she’s sliding down; she has the karma to fall into this. She has the karma. I mean, sliding down – you need to have karma for this

And so we develop compassion. I really don’t want this to happen to her or to others that we feel about. And everybody is in that situation, not just my mother. Then we take some responsibility to do something about it, to try to help. And so we need to reach enlightenment to overcome all the obscurations that prevent us from using our Buddha-nature potentials.

What is the object that we are aiming for with bodhichitta? It’s not enlightenment in general, some sort of enlightenment up in the sky. It’s not the enlightenment of Shakyamuni. The object is our own enlightenment, the enlightenment further down on our mental continuum. Our own individual enlightenment. That is the object of focus of bodhichitta. So we are moved by compassion and taking responsibility. And that future enlightenment of ours is not just a total myth that can’t happen. And so we have the strong intention: I’ve got to get there. I’ve got to reach that state as quickly as possible. I have to become this as quickly as possible so that I can then be of most benefit to everyone.

So it starts with compassion. And to do that, I need to build up the two enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness. So with this in mind, we reaffirm our bodhichitta with the next line:

By the positive force of my giving and so on, may I actualize Buddhahood to help those who wander.

By the positive force of my giving and so on. That’s saying that by these two enlightenment-building networks, the two collections, by means of this (by giving and so on), I’m not going to – I don’t want that just so that I get richer in samsara. “May that act as a cause,” and dedicate to enlightenment. By that, may I reach Buddhahood to help those who wander. That’s another term for sentient beings, those who wander from one rebirth to another, up and down, suffering.

We repeat this verse three times, this first verse. And it’s actually better to repeat the first line of it three times, and then the second line of it three times. But we do that only for the first repetition if we’re doing three of the six repetitions at a time, which is the usual way of doing it. Three times. And for each one: (1) they’ve actually fallen, or (2) about to fall, and (3) have the karma and are sliding down to fall.

I hope that’s clear. First with the refuge three times, then the bodhichitta three times. Obviously you can also do refuge and bodhichitta one time, and… Like that. But I think it’s more effective if you do each line three times separately. So this is the way of practice that Khensur Rinpoche Ugyen Tseten recommends. In fact, he says that the way that he practices is that, in all these practices where you do all these recitations, he repeats every line three times. Because if you do it just one time, you tend to do it very, very quickly, and just “Blah blah blah,” and you go through the whole thing and you don’t really have time to get into the state of mind or the proper visualization. And so he repeats each line three times and then goes to the next line, so that he actually gets into that state of mind. This is his own personal guideline instruction.

The Four Immeasurable Attitudes

So then we imagine that a replica of the guru-yidam dissolves into us, and it refreshes our visualization of ourselves as a yidam. Then we imagine that we do Buddha-activities – so lights go out from us and we transform all beings into Buddhas. Then we reflect and we think, “Why is it that they are not yet Buddhas and we’re just imagining doing this for them?” And it’s because they lack equanimity: they are attracted to some, reject and repel others, and ignore others.

In this way we make the transition to the meditation on the four immeasurable attitudes.

May all beings be parted from clinging and aversion, feeling close to some and distant from others,

That’s immeasurable equanimity. Now with each of these four immeasurable attitudes, we have four steps. First is the intention: “How wonderful it would be if they were like this” – that’s the intention – “How wonderful it would be if they had equanimity so they actually could become Buddhas, not just my imagining it.” Then the second is the aspiration: “May they become like this” – this is the wish – “May they gain this equanimity.” Then the third is the exceptional resolve: “I shall bring them to this state. I shall help them to reach this state. I’ll help them.” It’s not that we have the power to just cause them to be like that. We can help them, but obviously they have to develop themselves. So we take that responsibility. “I’m going to do it”. And then the fourth one is the request, the fourth step, which is: “O guru-yidam, inspire me to be able to do this.” So from this, the object of refuge – the guru-yidam in front of us – you see some lights come and inspire us to do this.

Then the second immeasurable attitude:

May they gain the joy that is specially sublime.

That’s the wish for them to be happy, isn’t it. Well, also with this we do the four steps. This is immeasurable love. “May they be happy.” So that’s immeasurable love. So that fulfills the Ratnasambhava bond of giving love. “May they be happy.” Although the text on this is short, so may they have joy – that’s happiness but also the causes for happiness, obviously. So that’s giving them: “May you be happy. And I’m going to try to help you, bring you happiness, so that you can reach happiness.” Generosity.

Then the next line is immeasurable compassion:

May they find release from the ocean of their unbearable problems.

May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. That’s immeasurable compassion, with the four steps. And what is it saying? May they gain release from the ocean of samsara. So that is “May they gain liberation.”

Then the fourth one is:

May they never be parted from liberation’s pure bliss.

This is immeasurable joy, it’s called. And what that’s referring to is “May they gain enlightenment.” With immeasurable compassion, may they gain liberation. With this immeasurable joy, may they gain enlightenment.

So equanimity: may they gain the equanimity that will enable them to progress and eventually become Buddhas. Then happiness: may they be happy. And with compassion, may they gain liberation. And with joy, may they gain enlightenment. It’s a progression like that.

So may they gain full enlightenment. That’s this joy. So that last one, this immeasurable joy that they gain enlightenment, this is the Ratnasambhava of giving freedom from fear. How is that? Because if they become Buddhas, then they will be free from all fears whatsoever.

And so a Buddha has the four states of fearlessness: He’s free from the fear of proclaiming his own realizations and attainments – “I have attained this” – no fear in saying that, that anybody’s going to catch them, that they were lying. And there’s no fear in proclaiming that “I’ve gotten rid of all these things, all these shortcomings.” Nobody’s going to be able to catch them, that they still have attachment, that they still have anger. And then the Buddha has no fear of proclaiming what others must rid themselves of. A Buddha can see that you have to get rid of this type of attachment or this sort of thing. A Buddha has no fear to assert this, to say that – no doubt. And then the fourth freedom from fear is that a Buddha has no fear in proclaiming the opponent forces that others need to rely on in order to rid themselves of these causes of suffering. You need to do this; you need to do that; and that will enable you to get rid of this obscuration, this fault, and so on. No fear in saying that. So this is giving them freedom from fear. “May you reach enlightenment” – have immeasurable joy of enlightenment – so that you never have any fear of anything. So you never have to be afraid of anything.

Now please bear in mind that in other practices these four immeasurable attitudes will be in a different order and they’ll be put together in a different way. This is just one way of doing it that appears here. There are many variations, even within Gelug, within these types of practices. In the Kalachakra six-session, these four are in a different order. So don’t be surprised. We had this discussion. “It’s not this. It’s not this. It’s not like it was in this six-session. It’s another one!” So you get angry; you criticize. “Argh, this is confusing,” and “Argh, I can’t take it,” and all this sort of stuff. All it simply is, is it’s one way here and it’s another way there. That’s the reality of what it is. No big deal. Many different ways of putting it together.

Developing Aspiring Bodhichitta

Next we have the development of aspiring bodhichitta. Sometimes called the wishing state of bodhichitta. And the aspiring state is divided into the mere aspiring state and the pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta.

And the mere aspiring state, that’s just the next line:

To free from the fears of samsara and complacent nirvana all wandering beings, I take hold of the mind that wishes to gain an enlightened state

And then the second half of this verse is the pledged state. And the pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta is the pledge that I’m not going to give it up, never going to give up this wish, this aspiration. And so that’s with the second line here, which is:

And from this moment on, till becoming a Buddha, I shall never forsake it, though my life be at stake.

So we had the merely aspiring state and the pledged aspiring state of bodhichitta.

There are five trainings which are involved once we have this pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta. And these we need to mention here because various verses that follow will help us to keep this. So the first is to be mindful each day. In other words, remember the benefits of developing bodhichitta. The second is to reaffirm our bodhichitta three times each day and three times each night, which we already did in the earlier verse, but also we do it again in the next verse. And then we work to try to build up the two enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness (or merit and wisdom). And that, we already said we were going to do by the positive force of giving and so on. So we’ve set our intention to do that already. Then the fourth one is never to give up on anyone. And the fifth is to rid ourselves of the four murky, negative actions, and do instead the four lustrous, positive actions which are the opposite of them.

The Four Murky Actions and Four Lustrous Actions

The first murky action would be to deceive our gurus, or the Three Gems, or our parents, when we say we’re doing something when we’re not. And the lustrous action that corresponds to that is never to do that. It’s the opposite.

Then the next one is being nasty to a bodhisattva, or disparaging – saying bad things about a bodhisattva. And that’s very difficult because we don’t know who really is a bodhisattva. And the opposite of that would be to regard everyone as a teacher. In other words, see everybody with a pure appearance.

Then the next murky action would be to cause others to regret the constructive things that they’ve done. even if it’s not something that’s our own personal choice. Somebody is, let’s say, practicing some other form of Buddhism than what we follow, or going to church, or something like that. It’s basically constructive. You don’t cause them to regret that. “Oh, you shouldn’t do that. That was no good.” This type of thing.

Let’s say somebody was going to a misleading teacher or an unqualified Buddhist teacher. You wouldn’t say, “Well, that was really bad, what you did. You shouldn’t have done that.” And then they would regret that and feel that they were really stupid. That’s not helpful. You can help them to go further and just look at what they did as, well, this was a first step. Now maybe it’s time for a second step. Don’t make them feel bad for what they did. If they learn something constructive from it, well, then there was something constructive in it. It was their entrance, and maybe it wasn’t perfect, but, okay, now go further. It was basically a constructive thing.

And then the lustrous action that corresponds to that is to encourage others to the Mahayana path – if they are receptive; it doesn’t mean go and be a missionary. This obviously was originally intended in terms of this whole Hinayana/Mahayana thing, that if somebody follows Hinayana that’s certainly not by any means destructive; it’s a constructive thing. We shouldn’t go as a Mahayanist and say, “No, that was bad. Now you must become Mahayana,” and make them think that following Hinayana was wrong.

Then the fourth one – the murky action – is to be pretentious, which means to pretend to have qualities that we don’t have. And to be hypocritical, which means to hide the faults that we do have. In other words, to have as our motivating thought something different from the exceptional resolve – which is that I want to take responsibility to try to help you, not to deceive you. And the opposite would be – the lustrous action – would be to have as our motivation in our interaction with others this exceptional resolve (I’m going to try to help you) and to be honest in terms of our capabilities.

So when we have this pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta – once you say, “I’m not going to turn back. Not going to give up my bodhichitta,” this wish – these practices will help us to maintain that direction of bodhichitta. It’s not yet the bodhisattva vows. It’s the basis, the first training. The first training. And on that basis, then, we are ready to take bodhisattva vows.

Generating the Engaged State of Bodhichitta

So then the next verse is generating the engaged state of bodhichitta, which is actually taking the bodhisattva vows. Which means avoiding the 18 root downfalls and the 46 faulty actions. Those 46 are divided into different sections. So we have one section for each of the paramitas, the far-reaching attitudes. These are things we want to avoid because they would hinder our development of these far-reaching attitudes. And then there is a final section of them, of some of these vows: that we want to avoid things that would prevent us from helping others in general.

So when we have this verse to reaffirm our bodhichitta from the pledged state, we both reaffirm our aspiring state that we did earlier, and here we reaffirm our engaged state, our bodhisattva vows. So this verse is:

Gurus, the Triumphant, and your spiritual offspring, please pay me heed: Just as the Blissfully Gone Buddhas of the past reaffirmed their bodhichitta aim and lived by the stages of bodhisattva training, I too reaffirm my bodhichitta aim, to help those who wander, and shall train in the stages of bodhisattva training.

The Triumphant refers the Buddhas. They’re triumphant because they have triumphed over all the obscurations.

And bodhisattvas. They often use this term “spiritual offspring” – sometimes that’s translated as “spiritual sons,” but that’s a bit gender biased. So they are born from the Buddhas, not in the sense that they’re actual biological children, but bodhisattvas come from the example of Buddhas, so you want to become a Buddha yourself. So they are “born” from that example of a Buddha, and they will grow up spiritually to become Buddhas. That’s why they’re called the spiritual offspring of the Buddhas.

"Sugata" is another epithet of a Buddha and it means Blissfully Gone One, or Blissfully Progressed One. They’ve progressed or gone through the paths. In other words, by following practices that bring blissful awareness of voidness, they have attained Buddhahood. So we can understand “blissful” here in just a sutra sense of freeing themselves from suffering. Or in a tantra sense, speaking of blissful awareness. And they, at the end, have progressed or gone to the highest blissful state.

You repeat this verse three times for the first of these repetitions, and then after that only once.

So then, after we’ve taken the bodhisattva vows, or reaffirmed our bodhisattva vows, then we remind ourselves of the benefits and advantages of having developed bodhichitta. It was one of the five trainings from the pledged bodhichitta, the pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta. We remember the benefits; that gives us more encouragement to go on. So we remember all the benefits of – that it gives great strength to our practice, and all these sorts of things. I mean, no need to list them. There’s a whole first chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara about that.

So the verse reads:

Now my life’s become fruitful, for having wonderfully attained a human existence, today I've awakened my Buddha-nature and now have become a Buddha’s spiritual child

That’s how it’s usually translated: “I’ve been born into the Buddha-families.” But what that means is: “Born” is also the same term as “awakened” – it’s not that I wasn’t in a Buddha-family before – I have awakened. Buddha-family, remember, means Buddha-nature. So now I’ve really activated that Buddha-nature that we all have – become a Buddha.

And now have become a Buddha’s spiritual child. So, again, a Buddha’s spiritual child is, as we explained before, a bodhisattva.

So one can take this verse in a very literal way – of being born in the family – but a much deeper level of understanding this is that we’ve awakened Buddha-nature, and now as a bodhisattva can really work to be a Buddha.

And then the verse continues:

Now, in whatever way possible I shall undertake actions that accord with its traits, and never defile this impeccable nature that lacks any flaw.

You see, by keeping the translation in terms of family, the way it’s translated here – that I will undertake actions that accord with this family, and never defile this family that lacks any flaw – that becomes rather sociological. Of course somebody could understand it in that way because the word is the same, but really it’s talking about Buddha-nature. So I’m always going to act in accord with this Buddha-nature, these qualities that allow me to become a Buddha. And that Buddha-nature is something which is impeccable. It doesn’t have any flaws. It’s completely pure. And so I’m not going to act in a way that’s going to cloud that. This is what it is talking about.

Please keep in mind, by the way, that this word that is translated as “family” is actually the Sanskrit word for “caste.” It’s not specifically “family.” It’s the word for “caste” and that’s the word that’s used for Buddha-nature. It’s not just your mother and father, but a very Indian way of expressing things. So there is something sociological behind it, that you are no longer in one of the typical Indian castes, that now you’ve joined the Buddha caste – so there’s no caste, in a sense; no caste differences. We’re all in one caste, and now this is a different caste, and in that caste we can become Buddhas. So there is that level of understanding of the way of expressing it.

So there’s that level of meaning and then Buddha-nature level of meaning. So, as we’ve seen in many of our studies here, the teachings always have several levels of meaning. But I think for us Westerners to understand this verse in terms of caste, it’s not so relevant. Understanding it more in terms of Buddha-nature I think is much better. And if we only understand it in terms of family, then you can get into clan warfare and all this sort of irrelevant stuff. So the Buddha-nature level of understanding, then, I find much more relevant.

So now, the preliminary steps within the six-session practice – that’s basically the safe direction, the four immeasurables, and bodhichitta – we have something similar to that at the beginning of most practices.

Dissolving the Objects of Refuge

So now we need to dissolve the objects for safe direction, objects of refuge. If our guru has passed away, has already died, then we imagine the visualization of the guru-yidam dissolves like a rainbow into voidness. But alternatively, particularly if the guru is still alive, then we can do one of three different visualizations. I mean, you can also do this if the guru has died as well, but they make this distinction when explaining it.

We can either imagine that the visualization returns to the actual pure lands. Or that it rises above and then, when we do the next visualization, it dissolves into that next visualization – because we’re going to do another visualization that’s almost identical, in terms of the spiritual teacher. Or we could imagine that this visualization of the guru-yidam gets smaller and smaller – comes towards us and gets smaller and smaller – turns into a tiny ball of light, and that ball of light enters us in the middle of our brow and goes down the central channel to our heart chakra and dissolves into us. We do the same thing, by the way, in the Lama Chopa, the Guru Puja, in the equivalent place.

If we’re doing this last visualization – dissolving into our heart chakra – we feel more inspired, and again we reaffirm the visualization of ourselves as Buddha-figures, as yidams, and in our hearts we have a flat moon disc and an upright blue syllable HUM standing on it.

Which Alphabet Should We Visualize Syllables In?

Now comes the interesting question. What alphabet do we use for the HUM? If we look at the Sanskrit language, the Indian alphabets for Sanskrit have changed over time. The alphabet that is used now, Devanagari, was not the alphabet that was used a thousand years ago. It wasn’t the alphabet that the Tibetans encountered when they first came across these Indian practices. The Sanskrit alphabet of the time when they received tantra, the alphabet that Sanskrit was written at that time. Tibetans call it Lantsa script, which is actually the Sanskrit word Lanja i.e. Ranja or Ranjana script. And Lanja script was used in Nepal, Kathmandu Valley, at the time when the Tibetans came in contact with tantra. In Tibetan monasteries, when they decorate the monastery, then up by the ceiling – just below the ceiling – they write mantras. Those mantras are also written in this same Lantsa script. We also find this script used in the powder mandala of Kalachakra, to represent the main deities in the charnel grounds around the palace. The Tibetans use the original script that they got these mantras in only for these purposes. In their meditation practices, Tibetans visualize mantras in their own Tibetan alphabet. And so obviously the Tibetans were able to practice successfully, visualizing in their own alphabet, therefore we can conclude – what? That it doesn’t depend so much on the alphabet that we use; it’s a symbol.

This is a general principle that is followed from the monastic tradition, the way the Tibetans follow it. And my own teacher Serkong Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama are very strong on this point, which is that you figure things out by logic. And so logically we can conclude that – and this, Serkong Rinpoche said quite explicitly – that we can also visualize in our own Western alphabets. It doesn’t make any huge difference, especially if it’s very difficult for us to visualize in these other alphabets when we don’t know the language.

So this means, of course, that when we have practices in which parts of a syllable dissolve into each other and so on, that we need to be inventive, not just make it up ourselves. That learned masters in the West figure out some sort of equivalent way of practicing because, again, it’s representing a dissolution, stages of dissolving. And often there’s going to be the more complex practices: within the syllable there is maybe a dot on top, and inside that dot is another syllable, and inside the dot of that tiny one is yet another syllable. I mean, there’s a lot of practices to get our mind microscopic. So this also could be done adapting it to Western alphabet. There’s nothing sacred about an alphabet.

Serkong Rinpoche gave this guideline, that obviously the alphabets have changed. So it has not really been worked out. I don’t think Western teachers have really – or Tibetan teachers – have really given it a great deal of thought. We’re just talking here in principle. That if you cannot manage to visualize with the Tibetan syllable, don’t get hung up by it. That’s the point. Particularly if you’re trying to visualize the hundred syllable mantra going around in a circle. Well, that’s quite difficult if it’s in an alphabet you don’t know. Probably it would make far more sense if it were vertical – with the H, and then the U underneath, and the M underneath – because that makes it easier for dissolution.

People now do it in the Tibetan alphabet; so if we can manage that, very good. It’s standard. It’s pointless thinking in terms of the future historical development of Western Buddhism. It doesn’t follow the historical model that it would stay in the script of the donor language. It’s changed. But the Tibetan alphabet is very weird, in any case, for transcribing Sanskrit because there are many Sanskrit letters that are not in Tibetan, so they write certain Tibetan letters backwards, and so on. So that’s very strange as well. One can argue that, well, it’s better to visualize in the present-day Sanskrit alphabet, Devanagari. I know both Sanskrit and Tibetan. For me it’s much easier, actually, to visualize the Sanskrit alphabet, especially for long mantras. But that is an individual matter.