Common Bonding Practices for the Buddha Families

An empowerment (initiation) for any anuttarayoga or yoga tantra system requires, in addition to taking the bodhisattva and tantric vows, a pledge to adopt and maintain certain practices that create close bonds (dam-tshig, Skt. samaya, bonding practice) with the individual Buddha-family traits (rigs). Often translated as “Buddha-families,” these traits refer to aspects of Buddha-nature – specifically the aspects of clear light mental activity – that allow us to attain enlightenment. As in the case of the five aggregates (Skt. skandha), each is represented in purified form by a Buddha-figure (yi-dam), associated with one of the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes, Buddha-wisdom).

[For the difference between a vow and a bonding practice, see: Auxiliary Bonding Practices]

As with the root tantric vows, there are two versions of these bonding practices – one shared in common by all anuttarayoga and yoga tantra systems and one specific to Kalachakra. Here, we shall look at the 19 common practices to bond us closely with five Buddha-family traits, as explained in the Gelug tradition by Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa). The 17th-century Fourth Panchen Lama (Pan-chen Blo-bzang chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan) composed The Six-Session Yoga (Thun-drug rnal-‘byor) for Gelug practitioners to recite six times each day to help them maintain mindfulness of the nineteen. The other three Tibetan traditions explain the set in a similar fashion, with a few minor variations.

[See: The Uncommon Bonding Practices for the Buddha-Families. See also: Extensive Six-Session Yoga]

Practices for Bonding with Vairochana

To create close bonds with the mirror-like deep awareness (me-long lta-bu’i ye-shes), represented by the Buddha-figure Vairochana (rNam-par snang-mdzad), we take safe direction (refuge) from

  • the Buddhas,
  • the Dharma,
  • the Sangha.

We likewise practice the ethical self-discipline involved in

  • restraining from destructive actions,
  • engaging in constructive ones, such as study and meditation, in order to develop good qualities,
  • working to benefit others.

Many of the Kagyu traditions teach that these practices associated with Vairochana create bonds with the deep awareness of the sphere of reality (chos-dbyings ye-shes).

In the Nyingma tradition, developing the aspiring and involved levels of bodhichitta substitutes for the first three.

Taking safe direction, practicing ethical self-discipline, and developing bodhichitta bring ever increasing clarity, as in a mirror, of the sphere of reality of both enlightenment and the course of behavioral cause and effect that leads to it.

Practices for Bonding with Ratnasambhava

Four practices create close bonds with the family trait represented by Ratnasambhava (Rin-chen ‘byung-gnas), deep awareness of the equality of things (mnyam-nyid ye-shes). These are being generous in four ways. Giving or being always willing to give:

  • material objects or wealth,
  • Dharma teachings or advice,
  • protection from fear, primarily by having equanimity and openness toward others so that they have no fear of being clung to, rejected, or ignored by us,
  • love, the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness.

By giving generously, we gain an ever broader realization of the equality of ourselves and others.

Practices for Bonding with Amitabha

Three practices create close bonds with the deep awareness of the individuality of things (sor-rtog ye-shes), represented by Amitabha (‘Od-dpag med). These are upholding the teachings of:

  • the three sutra vehicles (shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva),
  • the external vehicles of the lower classes of tantra (kriya and charya),
  • the confidential (secret) vehicles of tantra’s higher classes (yoga and anuttarayoga).

Upholding all of Buddha’s teachings brings an ever deeper appreciation of the individual brilliance and skill of each method.

Practices for Bonding with Amoghasiddhi

Two practices create close bonds with the accomplishing deep awareness (bya-grub ye-shes) and Amoghasiddhi (Don-yod grub-pa):

  • safeguarding our vows,
  • making offerings.

In place of safeguarding vows, the Nyingma tradition substitutes engaging in activities such as pacifying suffering (zhi-ba) and stimulating others’ good qualities (rgyas-pa, increase). It also divides making offerings into two practices – making offerings in general and offering tormas, sculpted cakes made of barley flour and butter.

Acting in accordance with vows, engaging in activities like those of a Buddha, and making offerings bring ever increasing wisdom and skill to accomplish all purposes.

Practices for Bonding with Akshobhya

Four practices create close bonds with Akshobhya (Mi-bskyod-pa) and the family trait of the deep awareness of the sphere of reality (Skt. dharmadhatu). Many of the Kagyu systems substitute the mirror-like deep awareness.

These four practices are

  • keeping a vajra, and the blissful awareness it symbolizes, as our method,
  • keeping a bell, and the discriminating awareness of voidness it represents, as our wisdom,
  • maintaining the mudra, or seal of visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure couple in union, representing the inseparable union of method and wisdom,
  • committing ourselves properly to a tantric master.

Maintaining a level of awareness that is both blissful and discriminating of voidness and following the instructions of a fully qualified tantric master bring ever fuller realization of the sphere of reality, as clearly as if seen in a mirror.