Guru & Avalokiteshvara: Advice on Lam-rim & Tantra

Questions about Visualizing Ourselves and Others as Deities

If we are practicing tantra and one of the tantra practices is to try to view everything in a pure way – in other words, all beings as Buddhas and all environment as mandalas, and so on – isn’t that an obstacle to developing compassion?

This pure view of everything and everyone around us is only intended as something that we use as a method for dealing with when we have a disturbing emotion toward somebody, like getting angry at them. At those times when you think that they are inherently bad people or stupid people or such alluring people (let’s say you have a longing desire for them), you see this disturbing appearance of them in terms of just the voidness of that, and focus on the pure nature of their minds as taking the form of a deity and so on. The same thing with the environment when you’re complaining about how polluted and terrible it is.

In other words, this pure vision is used as an opponent for helping us to overcome various problems, disturbing emotions. However, at other times you would see people in terms of their ordinary situation, which then would allow us to develop compassion. If you view everybody as a deity, then obviously they’re not suffering, so you wouldn’t be able to develop compassion. So we just use this pure vision when we need it.

Also when we are viewing others in this pure way, that is with mental cognition. Visually we see them in their ordinary form because that’s what appears to our eye consciousness. But with our mental consciousness, we imagine that they are in these pure forms. All right? If you didn’t view things that way and you tried to apply this in your daily life when you need it, you would smack into the wall, you wouldn’t be able to cross the street – you wouldn’t be able to do anything. So obviously it is not intended on that literal level.

And even on the complete stage when – with isolated body (lus-dben) – you immobilize the winds of the senses and withdraw them so that you don’t have this sensory cognition, that’s just in meditation. It’s not that it’s permanently like that – that after you do this first stage, you’re blind and deaf. It certainly doesn’t mean that.

In what we were just talking about, is it possible that it’s compassion that moves us to perceive that pure form, and so there is no contradiction when seeing them as deities on the basis of compassion?

In order to develop compassion, you need to be able to see that the others are suffering and then wish for them to be free of that suffering. So (viewing) them free of that suffering and then becoming deities, that’s one way of looking at it. And obviously also we can think that whatever causes of suffering that these others have – if you think in terms of voidness and so on, they’ve arisen from causes and conditions, and there are fleeting stains on the mental continuums of others – and the purity of their mind, which is free from all of that, that will appear in the form of a deity. There’s that way of looking at it as well, sure.

There are many ways of working with this type of teaching. You could see on one level that they have the Buddha-nature potentials to be enlightened, so that takes the form of the deity. However, because they are unaware of that, they suffer, so then “May they be free of the suffering.” So you could look at it that way, but still that’s acknowledging that they’re suffering.

There are many different levels, many different ways, to approach any particular teaching. But what Serkong Rinpoche emphasized was to have many, many different methods that you can use for dealing with the various problems that you encounter – like disturbing emotions – so if one isn’t particularly effective in a particular situation, you have other ones to rely on. So you have many different arrows that you can shoot into the target to get rid of the problem that you are experiencing at that time – the disturbing emotion and so on. It’s like when you are doing physical training. Trainers – good trainers – always say that it is detrimental to do the same set of exercises over and over again every day. You need variety so that it trains the muscles in different ways and trains different muscles. So don’t just repeat the one thing. Of course with Dharma exercises, mental exercises, it’s a little bit more difficult because you need to have experience and training with each one of them before you’re able to just automatically apply it in different situations. But nevertheless it’s good to have a variety of things that you can use as opponents.

Of course the deepest, strongest method is the understanding of voidness. But even with the understanding of voidness:

  • You can think in terms of the voidness of the other person that you’re angry with.
  • The voidness of me as the one who is so angry and offended.
  • You can think of the voidness of causality in terms of what are the causes for the other person to act like that and what are the causes for me to get angry.

You can apply voidness in many different ways. So don’t just become stale in terms of always using the same approach in applying methods to oppose your disturbing emotions and confusion.

When we are practicing the tantric path, one of our commitments is always to view ourselves in the pure form of a deity. The question that I asked was actually about trying to develop and cultivate compassion while at the same time always perceiving ourselves as the deity, or shouldn’t we do that?

If we are thinking in terms of compassion for others, then being Chenrezig, for example, Avalokiteshvara, naturally that helps to remind us to be compassionate. So I don’t see that that’s in any way an obstacle.

But naturally compassion – the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering – needs to be based on renunciation, the determination to be free of our own sufferings, so recognizing the suffering within ourselves and the wish to get rid of that, to get rid of the causes of that suffering in ourselves. Therefore it’s absolutely necessary for a tantric visualization that we have this renunciation, because what we are renouncing is our ordinary appearance and our grasping for a solid identity – being this ordinary appearance with this suffering and the problems of suffering. It’s not a denial of that, but it’s a way of dealing with that in terms of the understanding of voidness of the causal process, and so on, that brought about the suffering and the causal process that will allow us to see ourselves as a deity, the pure form.

Whether we are talking about our own suffering and the determination to be free of that or the suffering of others and compassion – “May they be free of that” – it’s very important not to go to the extreme of… Well, there are two extremes:

  • absolutism – that it’s concretely there and they’ll never get rid of it,
  • or the nihilist extreme – that it doesn’t exist. “Well, they’re not really suffering. They’re deities. I’m not really suffering. I’m a deity.” So you’re not dealing with overcoming it.

In both cases, one has to work with causality, cause and effect – that suffering comes from causes, and to attain a stopping of the suffering, you have to apply causes to get rid of it.

Prayer for Inspiration to Develop the Graded Pathway Minds (Lam-rim)

The Purpose of the Prayer

Next in the practice here is the prayer for inspiration to develop the graded pathway minds, lam-rim. Lam-rim, that’s usually translated as stages of the path. That word path (lam) is referring to states of mind. We’re not referring to a road. What you want to develop are levels of realization that build up, one on top of the other, and – in the manner of a path – lead to the goal. We’re talking about states of realization that we need to develop one on top of the other.

Now, there may be some people who will find that they haven’t really worked very much on these lam-rim stages before doing a practice like this, and so they use this as an opportunity to work on each of these stages. But what is more the structure in which we develop ourselves is that when we’re doing a practice like this or especially tantric practices… I mean, you can say, in a sense, this is a tantric… It’s hard to say. Is this a tantric practice? Not a tantric practice? What is it? I think it could be done on many different levels. But in any case, one needs to be prepared before doing this. It’s not as though you’ve never thought about refuge, you’ve never thought about bodhichitta, and all of a sudden you start doing them – you come in off the street, and this is the first time that you think about it – it’s certainly not intended like that. What is intended is that we’ve worked with all of these things before, and so this is like a script in which we just recall it – bring it back again to mind – and do it in a fairly quick sequence.

As Serkong Rinpoche always used to say: When you are familiar with lam-rim, the intention is that when you put one foot in the stirrup of a saddle – he used the image that Tibetans could relate to – in the time that it takes you to put your other leg over the horse (or yak) and get into the stirrup on the other side, you should be able to go through the entire lam-rim, every point. He used to say about death coming: Death doesn’t wait for you to set your meditation cushion right and light some candles and go through things nice and slowly. In times of disaster, like dying or whatever, you need to be able to get it all together like that, instantly.

So when we have a lam-rim prayer like this, although one could stop and spend a half hour on one verse and then next time a half hour on the next verse, and so on – that’s one way of doing it. But I think more in terms of what the intention is with the text is that you already have some level of realization of each of these stages, and now you are asking for inspiration to be able to brighten that, to uplift it – not to get the first insight into it but to uplift it more. That’s the meaning of inspiration (byin-gyis rlabs).

There are various lam-rim prayers. There is a lam-rim prayer that often is said at the end of Lama Chopa (The Guru Puja). So if one is going to do the type of lam-rim meditation in which you really want to spend a half hour or an hour on each point, I think more appropriate for that would be something like the actual lam-rim prayer. Whereas if a lam-rim review is within a sadhana or in a guru-yoga like this, and so on, it’s intended that you’ve already done that work with the lam-rim prayer itself.

And it wouldn’t be that you stop in the middle of this and take time out to do something else. You don’t take time out in a sadhana to analyze and so on, even with the voidness meditation in a sadhana. That’s not the time to do analytical meditation. That’s said quite clearly in the instructions. You’ve done all that analytical meditation beforehand. This is just to remind yourself of it, to just generate it automatically like that.

So if you want to extract this particular form of lam-rim prayer from this practice and use that as a structure for your lam-rim meditation, fine, perfect. But when you’re doing the whole process of the guru-yoga, it’s a whole line of development that needs to flow, and don’t take time out in the middle of it. Now, of course other teachers may explain it differently. As I said, there are many variants of doing things, but this is the way that I’ve been taught and the way that I’ve found useful.

So when we are doing this in the manner that I explained or have hinted at now, for each verse – because we have worked with these points in lam-rim already – you try to just generate the understanding and feeling that would go with it (there’s an emotional feeling with each of these points). And you imagine that you gain inspiration – it can be in the form of lights and so on – that this uplifts and intensifies that feeling. It’s not that you’re analyzing at this point.

This is actually quite challenging lam-rim practice. You take each of these verses – so the first in terms of the relation to the spiritual teacher and then the next one in terms of the precious human rebirth – and in lam-rim we have of course a very extensive explanation, and many versions of the extensive explanation, of each of these points. And each of these points is divided into many points, and they’re subdivided into many points, and so on. And we need of course to have heard about all of it, to have remembered all of these points, to have thought about them, understood them, be convinced that they are correct, and really let it sink in. And then you get an integration of all these points. For each individual step here, it’s all integrated into one understanding. And it’s not just what we would call intellectual, but it is with a certain feeling – that’s very hard to describe, what we mean by feeling – some sort of emotional component, positive emotional component, that is with this understanding. So it’s all integrated together into one state of mind based on all these various points and the understanding of the various points.

So we think “spiritual teacher, the relation with my spiritual teacher” – and obviously you need to have a fully qualified one or a very qualified one for this to actually work properly – but it’s a state of mind that you have in terms of how you relate to that spiritual teacher. It’s one state of mind, a very complex one, but it’s all integrated. It’s not that “Now I have to think of this little point, now I have to think of that little point, and I’m only going to feel this little point,” and like that. If you forget it or if it becomes weak, maybe you have to remind yourself of this or that little point, but what we’re aiming for is to have an integrated state of mind and feeling that then is applied in real life.

And remember this is a cumulative path. That means that on the basis of the spiritual teacher… The spiritual teacher is not the seed of the path. It’s not that that’s the first thing that you would work with. But once you’ve gone through the whole path, then the spiritual teacher is like the root – it gives you strength for the whole thing; it anchors it. When a plant starts to grow, it’s not that first there’s a root and then it grows.

His Holiness always recommends that actually the relation to the spiritual teacher should come at the end. When it is presented as the beginning, that’s because the audience for lam-rim, and so on, were monks who were having a review of the path in order to take a tantric initiation, so they already had a spiritual teacher, and they had already worked with all of this material. But for newcomers it should come at the end. Before a tantric initiation, you’re supposed to have a review of the lam-rim, and since you are forming this tantric bond with the spiritual teacher, naturally that’s going to be emphasized first. Nothing exists independently outside of a context, so always remember – voidness – nothing is established inherently from it within.

In any case, what I wanted to say was that, let’s say, if we start with the precious human rebirth and then death and impermanence, it’s not that you forget about the precious human rebirth. But just as you want to have an integrated state of mind with the precious human rebirth and appreciate what you have, which is so incredible, you integrate that with the state of mind of death and impermanence. So now you have an integrated state of mind that combines precious human rebirth and death and impermanence. And then it could fall to worse rebirths, and so now you have the combination, the integration, of these three. And eventually you want to have the integration of the entire lam-rim in one state of mind. This is extremely difficult because to get it, it really can’t be in words. If you have to say in words the whole thing, then you have to recite this whole text, which obviously takes a certain amount of time, no matter how quickly we do it. But eventually you want to be able to just have the full understanding. I mean, come on! We’re aiming for the omniscient mind of a Buddha that has all of these realizations simultaneously.

And when you are visualizing yourself as one of these deities, all the different arms and legs, and so on, represent all these various points on many different levels simultaneously. The aim is not to be able to visualize – so what? – what they’re all holding and so on. That is not the point. The point is to develop your mind to be able to keep an enormous amount of insights simultaneously, integrated. Tantra’s very, very advanced, not easy. Don’t trivialize it into just visualization of what this weapon that they’re holding looks like.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The detail of all these weapons and things they are holding is not something to be ignored either. It has a purpose. What we are doing is training ourselves – not to be able to hold a lot of weapons, but we are training ourselves to be able to keep a tremendous amount of very tiny detail simultaneously. Because if we are going to become a Buddha – you think about that, just expand from the level of a teacher (who really needs to know all the details about the students) or a therapist (who needs to remember all the details about all their clients) – as a Buddha we need to be able to know all the details of everybody. So all the specific aspects of a visualization, although that’s not the major point – the major point is what they represent (and don’t go to the nihilistic stream either of saying that the visualization is stupid) – it also trains us to be able to retain a tremendous amount of detail simultaneously.

Different Ways of Working with the Lam-rim

Okay. Now, there are two ways of working with lam-rim. There are many ways of working with lam-rim, but two that we can differentiate are:

  • When you are working with it initially, you work yourself up first to have the initial motivation and then the intermediate motivation and then the advanced motivation. That’s one way.
  • The second way is that you have the advanced motivation, so now you go back and you work with each of the points as being important for being able to attain enlightenment. “I need to appreciate this precious human rebirth because I need it to be able to get to enlightenment. And I need to be able to continue having them in order to be able to reach enlightenment.” So then each of the stages is within the context of the advanced level of motivation.

Also, in my writings on my website and my teaching, I make a difference between Dharma-lite and the “Real Thing” Dharma, and the difference between the two is whether or not we understand and accept and think in terms of rebirth (beginningless mind, beginningless and endless mind):

  • With Dharma-lite we can work with these three levels of motivation basically just to improve this lifetime (because we don’t really believe in future lives, past and future lives). But we shouldn’t fool ourselves. This is basically to improve our present samsaric life. And there are serious limitations to Dharma-lite. The problem comes up most significantly with the discussion of karma because most of the results that ripen from karma do not ripen in this lifetime from what we do in this lifetime, so that can be rather discouraging. So we’re going to have a problem with behavioral cause and effect if we’re only thinking within the limitations of this one lifetime. And although this Dharma-lite version can be quite beneficial, don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is the “Real Thing” Dharma. That’s not the “Real Thing” Dharma. That would be a preliminary step before really getting into the real thing. It’s helpful, very helpful, but call it what it is. It’s Dharma-lite.
  • If we want the real thing, then we really need to consider quite seriously the whole discussion about how individual mental activity – the mind – has no beginning and no end. That is not an easy topic. You need, in fact, a little bit of understanding of voidness of causality in order to really understand it. So it’s not simple.

So in the beginning what you do is you give it the benefit of the doubt, which means that “I will presume that it is true because the great masters and my teachers are convinced that it’s true. So I will presume that it’s true, although I don’t really understand it.” You can work with that, but that’s not a valid way of understanding something – of knowing something, I should say. And if I presume that it’s true and then I do all the trainings on the basis of that presumption and I see that it’s very beneficial, then that starts to convince me that maybe it is true. But then in order to really have a conviction that is firm, it needs to be based on either inference or bare perception. Well, bare perception is quite difficult for this, so it needs to be based on inference, which is lines of reasoning, and that has to do with causality, basically.

Also what’s quite convincing, at least from my own experience, is knowing some of these greatest tulkus – rinpoches – in two lifetimes and having this familiarity and seeing what carries over from lifetime to lifetime. That, at least in my case, was very, very helpful. But that was because I had a very, very close relation over many years, every day, with my spiritual teachers, and that’s rare – a really precious human rebirth. But for most of us, we won’t have that personal experience. For most of us, we will need to rely on logic; and it is logical, actually, in terms of beginningless mind.

In our next session, our last for this seminar, we will finish up in the good Tibetan tradition, which is to spend an awful lot of time at the beginning and then just rush through the rest at the end.