Pure and Impure Appearances

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What Are Impure and Pure Appearances?

Now let’s discuss the variable of impure and pure appearances. The variable of pure and impure is applied in terms of whether or not an appearance is adulterated and stained with faults. “Faults” here refers to items that arise from our unawareness. This variable of pure and impure, then, refers to both aspects of the mental hologram: what it is and how it appears to exist. Does it derive from unawareness in terms of the twelve links of dependent arising, or does it not? In terms of the appearance of what something is, an impure appearance is as an ordinary place and an ordinary body: for instance, the human body. This is basically what we look like now, our ordinary appearance: human bodies in an ordinary room. Having a human body in this shape and aspect is something that arises dependently on unawareness through the twelve links of dependent arising. We’re reborn with this type of body and in this type of environment.

A pure appearance of what things are, of how we and our environment appear, is as a mandala palace and the body of a Buddha-figure like Avalokiteshvara or Tara. These do not arise through the twelve links of dependent arising and out of unawareness; these are emanations of a Buddha. Buddhas can appear in any of these forms, and through a Buddha’s concentration, there are pure lands of Amitabha or of Maitreya and so on. These pure lands of Amitabha and Maitreya: Sukhavati and Tushita, respectively, actually arise out of the pure prayers – this is technically how it would be described – of these Buddhas. However, we could imagine that we ourselves having these pure forms. That’s how we practice with them in tantra.

Both these impure and pure appearances of what something is could be accurate or inaccurate. An impure appearance as a human could appear as a human in focus – that would be accurate – or as a blurred human – that would be inaccurate. It would be the same thing with a pure appearance of Avalokiteshvara: it could appear in focus or it could appear fuzzy and not in focus. Or the mental; hologram could be of Tara with three arms, rather than two – that would also be an inaccurate pure appearance.

In addition to pure and impure appearances of what something is, there are also pure and impure appearances of how something exists. Here, “pure” refers to the appearance of how things exist that arise in the mental activity of arhats, liberated beings, those whose mental activity has been purified of the emotional obscurations. Arhats have achieved a true stopping of them. Buddhas have achieved these true stoppings as well, but in addition, Buddhas also have achieved a true stopping of the cognitive obscurations. So, the mental activity of Buddhas also gives rise to pure appearances of how things exist.

The emotional obscurations include unawareness and its tendencies, as well as grasping for true existence. So, since arhats have attained a true stopping of unawareness, they have attained liberation from the twelve links of dependent arising. In this sense, only the mental activity of arhats and Buddhas can give rise to pure appearances of how things exist, whereas the mental activity of not only arhats and Buddhas, but also the mental activity of mundane beings like us can give rise to pure appearances of what things are.

The cognitive obscurations include the constant habits of grasping for true existence. Since arhats, liberated beings, still have these constant habits, the pure appearances of how things exist when they are not totally absorbed non-conceptually and explicitly on voidness – that means when they do not have an appearance of voidness arising – these have an appearance of true existence. They cognize these deceptive appearances, but do not grasp at them. That is because they lack the faults of unawareness, so they are aware of the fact that these appearances are distorted and do not correspond to how things actually exist. When arhats are totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, specifically when they have attained a joined pair of pure illusory body and actual clear light on the complete stage of Guhyasamaja, then the appearances of how things exist that arise lack any appearance of truly established existence.

Buddhas, as I said, are also arhats – they are so-called “Buddha arhats.” Since they are always totally absorbed non-conceptually on voidness, the pure appearances of how things exist that arise in their mental activity are never with an appearance of truly established existence.    

Imagining Pure Appearances in Tantra

In terms of this variable of “pure and impure” applied to what something is, “pure,” as I explained, implies an appearance similar to what arises in our mental activity when we become Buddhas. This is what we work with in tantra. On the first stage of tantra practice, we imagine that we actually arise with these pure appearances, the way that we would as a Buddha. This means that we imagine that we have the pure appearance not only of what something is – a Buddha-figure like Avalokiteshvara – but also the pure appearance of how it exists in this case, without an appearance of true existence. But of course we can only imagine a pure appearance of how we exist, since for us mundane beings, all appearances that our mental activity gives rise to will appear to be truly existent.

To generate this type of pure appearance of what we are and how we exist, we start by imagining that our usual consciousness dissolves or, more precisely, withdraws from giving rise to its usual ordinary appearances – namely, with impure forms and impure ways of existing. Both arise through the samsaric process of the twelve links, driven by unawareness and grasping for true existence. Then we focus on the voidness of these impure appearances ­– that there is no such thing as truly established existence. We focus on a total absence of truly established existence and imagine that we are focusing on this voidness non-conceptually, though of course we won’t be able to do that until we become an arya. No appearances of impure or pure objects arise when we focus on voidness, so we try to imagine our mental activity giving rise to an appearance of just voidness alone.

If we’re doing this type of practice in the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, we imagine that our mental activity withdraws from having its physical basis be our ordinary body. That includes both the gross elements of our gross physical body and the subtle elements of our body’s subtle energy-systems – the energy winds, channels and chakras. We imagine that we now have exclusively the mental activity of the subtlest clear-light level of consciousness, focused non-conceptually on voidness. Maintaining that pure appearance of how we exist, then within that state of voidness cognized non-conceptually by our clear-light mental activity, we imagine that the subtlest life-supporting energy-wind that supports that clear-light mental activity arises now in a pure appearance of what we are. We imagine ourselves arising with the pure appearance of a Buddha-figure.

In the practice of the three so-called “lower” classes of tantra, we don’t imagine that we have clear-light mental activity. Instead, we focus on voidness with our ordinary mental consciousness. However, mental activity always has a physical basis, doesn’t it? So, we imagine that our body that is the physical basis supporting the mental activity that is focusing on voidness appears now in the pure form of one of these Buddha figures. The language used to describe this is: “The mind that has the understanding of voidness appears in the form of the deity.” However, that’s a very confusing way of saying it. What that means is that our mental activity is focusing on voidness and our body that is supporting that mental activity appears in the form of a yidam – a Buddha figure. In this way, we imagine that we have a pure appearance of what we are and a pure appearance of how we exist. Similarly, in all four classes of tantra, we imagine a pure appearance of the environment around us, which appears in the pure form of a mandala palace in a pure land.

Since, at our level, any appearance that our mental activity gives rise to will have an appearance of true existence, how do we practice these visualizations with an understanding of voidness? We practice in the manner of what is known as “subsequent attainment” or “subsequent realization” (rjes-thob), usually translated as the “post-meditation period.” Actually, we are still in meditation, it is just the second phase of the meditation, attained “post” or “subsequent to” total absorption on voidness.

In subsequent attainment meditation, we try to maintain an implicit understanding of voidness while we visualize ourselves as a Buddha-figure and our environment as a mandala. We’re no longer focusing explicitly on voidness, where an appearance of voidness would arise. With implicit correct and accurate cognition of voidness, an appearance of voidness doesn’t arise. But even though in our meditation these pure appearances of what we are do appear to be truly existent, we know that they do not exist that way. So, like a liberated being who is not focused non-conceptually explicitly on voidness, we have cognition of true existence, but not grasping at it. According to the definitions, this is still a pure appearance of how we exist. Our appearance of how we exist is as it would appear to an arhat purified of emotional obscurations.

The Necessity for Renunciation, Bodhichitta and a Correct Understanding of Voidness When Imagining Pure Appearances

Because we imagine that our mental activity stops giving rise to the impure ordinary appearances of who we are and how we exist, it is essential that we practice tantra on the basis of renunciation. We must renounce – meaning we must be determined to be free – of ordinary appearances: how we ordinarily appear and how everything ordinarily appears. Otherwise, we’ll be attached to these impure appearances and we won’t want to give them up. But when we realize that these impure appearances arise from unawareness and just produce problems, we can more easily develop renunciation of them.

Also, we can’t possibly practice tantra effectively without bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is aimed at our individual not-yet-happening enlightenments. We represent the Form Bodies of our future enlightenment with the pure appearance we are imagining ourselves as having. And we represent the Dharmakaya of our future enlightenment with the pure appearance we are imagining of how we exist. Otherwise, we might as well be some crazy person imagining themselves truly to be Mickey Mouse or Cleopatra.

We also can’t practice tantra properly without a correct understanding of voidness, because all that we imagine has to be generated within an understanding of voidness. We need to understand that things don’t exist in the way that our mundane minds make them appear – namely with an appearance of true existence because of our constant habits of grasping for truly established existence. With that understanding, we don’t believe that we actually do truly exist as Avalokiteshvara or Tara. If we think that we truly do exist as these Buddha-figures now, then we’re no different from that crazy person believing that they are Mickey Mouse or Cleopatra.

That’s why it’s emphasized in the texts that if we practice these tantric visualizations of ourselves in these Buddha-figure forms without bodhichitta and without some understanding of voidness, the result is being reborn as some sort of ghost in the form of these figures. We certainly don’t want that! Unqualified practice of tantra is actually quite dangerous. We need to have proper preparation with sutra study and practice beforehand. It’s unfortunate that so many people practice tantra prematurely nowadays. That’s very sad.

The Four Purified Factors

When we work with these pure appearances of what things are, we imagine four purified factors. We imagine we have:

  • Pure bodies ­– both we and everyone around us have the pure bodies of Buddha-figures, not the types of ordinary bodies that arise from unawareness through the twelve links.
  • A pure environment – a mandala palace in a pure land.
  • A pure manner of experiencing sensory objects with enjoyment – our mental factor of feeling a level of happiness is pure like that of a Buddha, not something that arises as a ripening of karma. That’s what we emphasize with all the offerings we make in the tantric rituals. It’s not just that we have them sitting there and “so what?” Rather, we imagine actually seeing them, tasting them, listening to them, and so on with pure, blissful awareness. Usually we go through our tantric practices so quickly, we just do it like “blahblahblahblah!” and we don’t have any time to enjoy anything. However, if we really wanted to do the practice properly, we would make the offerings slowly and individually while imagining actually enjoying the fragrance of the incense or the taste of the food without it causing us to sneeze or making us fat.
  • Pure actions – a pure enlightening influence on everyone.

There are four types of pure actions or enlightening influence that we imagine we have when we imagine emanating lights to all suffering beings around us:

  • Calming and quieting down others – just being in the presence of a Buddha calms them down.
  • Stimulating others to grow – when we’re with a Buddha, or a great being, our minds become clearer, our hearts become warmer, and we become inspired to become more engaged in positive things. We imagine that we have this type of influence on others as we imagine lights going out from our hearts and helping all beings.
  • Bringing others under control – so that they go in a positive direction. Also, helping others to unify, integrate and best use their talents and abilities. In other words, this is a type of influence that inspires others to get everything together, rather than being completely chaotic and so on. Things are in order and under control, and able to function strongly. Everything fits together and works harmoniously.
  • Forcefully stopping dangerous situations – situations in which others may hurt themselves or be hurt by others.

Our Mental Activity Can Give Rise to Pure Appearances Because of Our Buddha-Nature Factors

In our tantric practice, when we’re imagining these pure forms – in other words, when our mental activity is giving rise to mental holograms of these pure forms in the mental holograms – we realize that all that we are imagining is not yet happening. However, these pure appearances can actually arise in our mental activity because we have all the Buddha-nature factors that we discussed earlier, like our networks of positive force and of deep awareness. These networks are all tendencies, which are imputations on the conventional “me,” which itself is an imputation on the continuum of the five aggregates.

Tendencies have a facet, which is the ability to give rise to a result when the conditions are all present. In this sense, tendencies, literally “seeds,” can also be translated as “potentials.” The results that they could give rise to are not yet happening, but they could happen when all the conditions are present – in other words, when these networks are completely built up to their maximum. These networks and everything that we’re doing can be inspired; they can be uplifted by conviction in the good qualities of the Buddhas and the spiritual teachers. That will help to stimulate all of this.

When we receive empowerments, or initiations, that also helps to activate these potentials more, so we get further uplifted. Then, by taking and keeping vows: pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and tantric vows, that gives more positive force. Then, in tantric practice we label “me” on this not-yet-happening situation that can happen on the basis of these Buddha-nature factors, rather than labeling “me” on our ordinary body, activities, and way of experiencing things.

That’s what it means to “hold the pride of the deity.” It means to take as the basis for imputation of the conventional “me” this not-yet-happening situation of already being a Buddha. Obviously, holding the pride of the deity needs to be within the understanding of voidness. Otherwise, we run the danger of projecting an imagined truly existent “me” on this pure appearance, since our constant habits of grasping at truly established existence will make the pure appearances of ourselves as Buddha-figures seem to be truly existent. We need to realize that the appearances do not truly exist. Don’t fall for the trap of identifying the false “me” with this appearance. Because, if we do that, we run the danger of becoming really mentally disturbed. Sometimes we see such people in the Tibetan communities. They think “I’m really Tara,” and then take off all their clothes and walk around naked in the marketplace. Or “I’m Vajrayogini.” I’ve seen such people.

The Advantages of Imagining Ourselves as Having the Pure Appearance of a Buddha-Figure

Our ordinary forms are tainted, if we use Vasubandhu’s definition of “tainted.” He defines “tainted” as “anything that arises based on unawareness and the other disturbing emotions, and which gives rise to, strengthens and perpetuates further unawareness and further disturbing emotions.” This fits in well with how we’ve been discussing impure appearances.

An example of something that’s tainted is our ordinary bodies. Our ordinary bodies arise through unawareness and the twelve links. They perpetuate more unawareness because we identify with them, get very attached to them, and get angry if anybody hurts or makes fun of them. If we try to attain shamatha by just focusing on the form of our body, we’re using a tainted object, in the sense that many of us still have a negative attitude toward it of: “I’m ugly, I’m short, I don’t like my nose, my feet are not so nice and so on.” There are all these disturbing emotions and attitudes that we have about our ordinary bodies. Or, “I’m so beautiful...” If you think about that, it’s true that most of us have quite biased ideas about our bodies and how we look. We look at ourselves in the mirror and we have this slightly disapproving feeling, or we think that we’re the most beautiful thing in the world. Tara isn’t always fixing her hair. We’re always fixing our hair!

Of course, the form of a Buddha figure isn’t necessarily untainted, because we could practice tantra with great attachment and arrogance: “Oh, I’m so beautiful, I’m Tara,” or “Oh, I’m so smart, I’m Manjushri.” We could practice with other disturbing states of mind as well, like confusion. For example, “I have these twenty-four arms as Kalachakra and I’m holding all these different things, but I have to blow my nose... which arm do I use? What do I put down?” You see, you could get a bit confused. But that’s not really how we practice tantra, is it?

In general, though, these forms don’t elicit as strong disturbing emotions as our ordinary bodies do, so there’s an advantage to practicing shamatha and vipashyana focused on ourselves in these forms. There is less danger of distraction due to our negative associations and attitudes. Also, these forms don’t change from moment to moment. When we visualize ourselves as Avalokiteshvara, he always looks the same. If we’re focusing on our body, now we have an itch, now we our legs hurt so we have to shift position, and so on. Because the form of a Buddha-figure always stays the same, it serves as a more stable basis for meditating single-pointedly on it and on its voidness.

However, if we’re imaging ourselves in these forms all day long, don’t imagine that we’re frozen and that as Yamantaka we could never sit down. This was the advice from Serkong Rinpoche. Even though we’re in that form all day long, still we’re doing whatever we do. But, when we’re focusing on these forms in our meditation to gain single-minded concentration, then of course, they have a standard posture. We’re not a statue; we’re living beings and of course we walk and we sit down and we eat supper. This is very practical advice, so try to remember it if you’re doing tantric practice. My teacher Serkong Rinpoche was very, very practical. That was one of his outstanding features. He was totally down-to-earth.

Also, when we try to imagine everyone around us also in the form of Buddha-figures and the environment as a pure land with mandala palaces, don’t lose sight of the conventional appearances of things. Otherwise, we could get hit by a car when trying to cross the street. Serkong Rinpoche advised seeing everyone and everything as having their conventional appearances on the outside, but beneath the surface the pure forms. We need to try to do the same with our own appearance, though that’s not so easy.

Another point: all the arms, legs, and faces of these Buddha-figures represent the various factors we need to develop and perfect in order to attain enlightenment. So, when we imagine ourselves in these forms, all these arms and legs help us to keep in mind simultaneously all the different levels of what they represent.

Tantra Meditation with Pure Appearances Is the Resultant Vehicle

The pure appearance of ourselves as Buddha-figures resembles the result that we wish to achieve, mainly the Form Bodies of a Buddha. These visualized figures are more similar to the result than what we practice with in sutra. In other words, the pure appearances as Buddha-figures look like what we attain as the result of our practice. Because of that, tantra is called the “resultant vehicle.” We are imagining that we have already achieved the result of all the causes that will bring us to enlightenment.

The practice of sutra is called the “causal vehicle,” because with it we focus on the causes for enlightenment, so the causes for the Form Bodies of a Buddha, which means the positive force built up from our constructive acts done with love, compassion and bodhichitta. For instance, the standard form of Buddha Shakyamuni that we would focus on in a sutra practice of shamatha and vipashyana has 32 major and 80 minor physical features. Each of these features has a cause: the positive force from some specific type of constructive, loving behavior. For instance, Buddha has a long tongue, and this is because in previous lives Buddha took care of others with loving kindness the way that a mother animal does by licking her babies.

The Indian Buddhist master Asanga presents a long list of objects that we can focus on for attaining a state of shamatha. However, Kamalashila, in his Stages of Meditation, recommends focusing on the visualized form of Buddha Shakyamuni, which Asanga did not list in his presentation. Tibetans generally use this – the visualization of the form of a tiny Buddha Shakyamuni before them – as their object of focus for attaining for shamatha. That comes from Kamalashila who, together with his teacher Shantarakshita, established the Indian tradition of Buddhism in Tibet from Nalanda Monastic University.

Shamatha, you remember, doesn’t just focus on an object with perfect concentration. It focuses on it with understanding, so with discriminating awareness of something about the object, which it distinguishes and has certainty about and which maintains mindfulness of. Vipashyana adds to that gross detection and subtle discernment of all the details. So, when we focus on a tiny Shakyamuni Buddha in front of us in shamatha practice, we try to focus on it with the understanding that this is the Buddha and discriminating awareness of what a Buddha is. When we focus on such a visualized Buddha with vipashyana practice, we try to have gross detection and subtle discernment. The gross detection is of not just his features, but the fact that each of them has the positive force of constructive behavior as its cause. The subtle detection is of each and every one of these individual features and its specific cause. Until we reach the stage of shamatha practice at which we no longer have flightiness of mind or mental dullness, our shamatha and vipashyana meditation are also accompanied by gross detection of the presence of these two obstacles to concentration.  

This is the sutra causal vehicle: we’re focusing on the causes for attaining the Form Body of a Buddha, as opposed to the tantra resultant vehicle where we imagine now that we have a pure Form Body of a Buddha, with all the faces, arms and legs representing all our good qualities as a Buddha. Of course, when we practice shamatha and vipashyana focused on ourselves in these pure forms, we also need gross detection and subtle discernment of all the good qualities represented by all our arms, legs, faces and so on.

It’s important to realize that our practices can always go deeper and deeper. There are always deeper levels to all the practices we do. The more deeply we go, the more respect and conviction we have in the Dharma – in how incredibly profound it is that each practice can have so many different levels and be effective in so many stronger and stronger ways. So, we need to fill our practice with meaning, not just form. Not just the form of a Buddha, but the meaning behind it.

Anuttarayoga Tantra Complete Stage Practice with Pure Appearances

If we are practicing the highest class of the resultant vehicle, anuttarayoga tantra, we first practice the generation stage. On this first stage, we merely imagine that we appear in these pure forms with the pure appearance of how we exist. We’re ready to go on to the next stage when we have attained a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana focused on these visualizations.

Then comes what I call the “complete stage” – it’s usually translated as “completion stage,” but it doesn’t mean that now we are completing what we started before; that’s not the meaning of the word. It means that now everything we did is complete. With joined shamatha and vipashyana focused on our pure form, we now have the complete tools to be able to actually manipulate the subtle energies in our body and generate them into pure forms, not just imagined ones.

Ultimately, when we manifest and activate our clear-light mental activity and have it focused with blissful awareness non-conceptually on voidness, we will be able to have the subtlest energy-wind supporting that clear light mind take on an actual pure form, a pure illusory body, that will serve as the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha.

So, that’s the presentation of impure and pure appearances.