The Noble Truths of Suffering and Its Causes
Thank you, I am a bit overwhelmed by this welcoming crowd, but I am very delighted to be here and to have this opportunity to share some thoughts with you. I have been asked to provide an orientation to Buddhism and Kalachakra – a rather large topic and one that deserves an extensive explanation, not an oversimplified one, especially when there is such a large and enthusiastic audience. His Holiness, after all, will be teaching about Kalachakra, as always, on a deep and profound level.
The best way to begin to present Buddhism, as His Holiness has recommended, is usually with where Buddha began, which is with the four noble truths. You can’t go wrong with that. When we speak about the four noble truths, what we are talking about are four facts that highly realized beings regard as true. Highly realized beings – aryas in Sanskrit, usually translated as “Noble Ones” – are those practitioners who have had non-conceptual cognition of reality – they’ve seen the way that things actually are. They see non-conceptually that these four are true facts, whereas most people would not regard them as true.
The four noble truths start with recognition of our situation in life. Our situation in life is one that is filled with problems, difficulties, suffering. One of the basic axioms in Buddhism is that everybody wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy. So that’s the dilemma, how to get rid of unhappiness and suffering?
There are many forms of suffering. There is what is usually called the “suffering of suffering,” which is referring to our unhappiness, whether it’s accompanying a sense perception, thinking something, or doing or saying something. Everybody acknowledges that this is a problem.
Then there is what is called the “suffering of change,” which is referring to our ordinary happiness. Ordinary happiness might seem nice, but it’s problematic. The problem is that it doesn’t last and we are never satisfied; we always want more. We never know what is going to come next, so it’s very insecure; and if we have too much of it, like when eating ice cream, it quickly turns to unhappiness if we eat too much. So those are the problems with this ordinary happiness.
But the real problem that Buddha emphasized was the third type of suffering, which is what’s known as the “all-pervasive suffering.” This is referring to the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering. The basis is our uncontrollably recurring rebirth under the influence of all sorts of disturbing factors – that’s what we call “samsara.” In other words, we are continually reborn over and again with a body, a mind, emotions, and uncontrollable things happening to us that are serving as the bases for experiencing either unhappiness or ordinary happiness. And it’s self-perpetuating, on and on. That’s what’s so terrible.
So if we want to get rid of these first two types of sufferings, we need to get rid of their basis, that third type of suffering, samsara. What Buddha then explained is that in order to get rid of it, we need to get rid of its causes. And we need to go deeply enough in order find the true causes of samsaric rebirth – the second noble truth, the true cause of suffering. So if we look at it, then we find the first big troublemaker in this whole terrible situation is what we call “karma.”
Karma, of course, is a very complex topic. There are several subtle theories explaining it. According to perhaps the subtlest explanation, that of the Prasangika school as asserted by the Gelugpas, karma refers to various compulsive factors involved with our thinking, communicating and acting, whether destructively or constructively. “Compulsion” is perhaps too strong a word, but what I mean by it are factors that we have no control over; they arise or happen automatically, based on habit.
Compulsive mental impulses drive us to think either to hurt someone or to be “good” and help someone. Those are mental karma. Based on such compulsive thought, the physical actions we do have a compulsive shape and the words we say have a compulsive sound to them. In each of these cases, the compulsive aspect is the actual karma, not the action driven or shaped by it. The actions themselves are karmic forces, either negative or positive; and when completed, build up karmic potentials, karmic tendencies and karmic constant habits on our mental continuums. In addition, our physical and verbal actions have a further compulsive aspect, namely their nonrevealing forms, which are also a form of karma. These nonrevealing forms of karma are a subtle type of compelling energy that accompanies and then continues with our mental continuums afterwards when we have finished doing or saying something, so long as we do not firmly give up the intention to repeat such acts. When we give up that intention, they too build up karmic potentials and tendencies.
Karmic potentials and tendencies “ripen” into our feeling like repeating the previous behavior that was responsible for them and also into our experiencing various things happening to us similar to what we have done in the past. Based on feeling like doing something similar to what we have done in the past, for example like yelling cruel words at someone who annoys us, the compulsion arises to think to yell – not necessarily a verbal thought – and then the sound of the words we say as we yell becomes compulsively loud and cruel. The cycle goes on.
What also come specifically from karmic potentials – and this is very significant – are our feelings of ordinary happiness and unhappiness. Regardless of what we’re experiencing, no matter what we are thinking, saying or doing, we feel happy, unhappy, or neutral. Happiness is that feeling that when we experience it, we would not want to be parted from it; with unhappiness, we want to be rid of it; while a neutral feeling is one that we neither wish to continue nor wish to stop.
Buddha taught that if we are experiencing happiness, this is the result of previously having acted, spoken, or thought in a constructive way; and if we are experiencing unhappiness, that’s come from having acted, spoken or thought in a destructive way. What’s destructive is to act under the influence of anger, greed, attachment, naivety, jealousy, pride, and so on – these sorts of disturbing emotions. And if we act, speak or think with these disturbing emotions, the negative karmic potential from that will ripen sometime in the future into our feeling unhappy as a result – unless of course we purify ourselves of all our negative karmic potentials. We may feel unhappy even sometimes when it doesn’t seem to make very much of a connection with what we’re actually doing. We can be doing the same thing, such as eating our favorite food, and sometimes we feel happy while doing it, and sometimes we don’t feel happy. This is the essence of what is terrible about samsara. Because we can never predict how we’re going to feel at any moment, we’re very insecure.
Throwing Karma and the Mechanism of Compulsive Rebirth
Now, if we look in terms of the third type of suffering – the all-encompassing suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth – then what is relevant here is what’s known as “throwing karma.” This is also a compulsion; it’s the compulsion that drives us to think with a strong disturbing emotion, such as anger, greed or attachment, and it may lead to speaking or acting based on such compulsive disturbing thought. At the time of our deaths, if we activate the karmic potentials and tendencies that have built up from our previous throwing karma, then the activated throwing karma becomes a compulsive impulse that throws us into another rebirth. In simple language, we’re completely freaked out at the time of death and we desperately grasp out to have some sort of body; we want to continue. Driven by this compulsion, we grab out and take another rebirth. This brings us another body and a mind as a further basis with which to experience repeated patterns of behavior and things happening to us, and to experience them with unhappiness, ordinary unsatisfying happiness, or a neutral feeling.
Let’s look a little more deeply at the mechanism involved here with compulsive rebirth. Underlying it is a further syndrome regarding our disturbing emotions. Repeatedly experiencing disturbing emotions, such as anger and attachment, builds up tendencies for them to arise again. Certain specific disturbing emotions are directed toward the happiness or unhappiness that we are experiencing, especially at the time of death, and they are what activate the karmic potentials from our throwing karma. If we are frightened or in pain, we are extremely unhappy; if we are focusing on our spiritual teachers, but with attachment, we are relatively relaxed and happy.
In either case, firstly, we have a craving toward those feelings. The Sanskrit term here, trshna, actually means a thirst. Like when our throats are extremely dry, we exaggerate the negative qualities of our unhappiness and thirst for it to end. And like experiencing the first sip of water, we’re still thirsty – we thirst, in a sense, for the happiness that we’re feeling not to stop. We’re not satisfied with just the first moments of happiness we experience: we exaggerate the good qualities of that happiness and crave more and more. Most of us, of course, will also thirst for continuing existence in this life, but that type of thirst does not activate throwing karma for further rebirth.
Despite our thirst to continue in this life, at a certain point we realize that this will be impossible. This life is ending. Based on thirsting to be parted from the unhappiness that we’re feeling at the time of death, or not to be parted from the happiness we’re feeling, then if we believe in rebirth or an afterlife, we clutch after and strongly draw toward us the body, sense objects and pleasures of a future rebirth state that will be the basis for what we thirst after. This longing desire is stronger than merely craving for further existence. It has an element of anxiety that accompanies it, which means, for most of us, fear about what will happen after we die – fear of the unknown. That fear is based on grasping for a seemingly solid, truly existent “me” – “What’s going to happen to ‘me?’ I want death to be peaceful and wonderful; I don’t want it to hurt!” If, on the other hand, we believe that after death comes the “Big Nothing,” we clutch after and strongly draw toward us, also with anxiety, a Big Nothing that will be the basis for what we thirst after. It is almost as if we conceive of the Big Nothing as a warm, peaceful bubble that we will be absorbed into and then disappear.
In addition, we have a strong intention to obtain as our goal after we die either the eternal unchanging existence of our supposedly truly existent “me” or the total nonexistence of our truly existent “me,” and we are deeply attached to the belief that that is what will happen. Even more deeply, as I just indicated, we experience at the time of our deaths the disturbing attitude with which we project the heavy conceptual framework of a seemingly solid, truly existent “me” onto the whole situation. Our attitude is that “I want to continue existing forever” or “I want to stop existing,” and “I want to have the body, sense objects and pleasures of a next life as mine” or “I want to experience the Big Nothing as my final resting place.”
This cluster of disturbing emotions and attitudes then activates throwing karmic potential, so that we experience a compulsion that drives us to take a further rebirth in the hope of satisfying our thirst and in accord with our disturbing attitudes. That’s samsara – uncontrollably recurring rebirth under the influence of karma and disturbing emotions and attitudes.
The Clear Light Level of Mind
Underlying this repeating cycle of birth, death and rebirth – what provides the continuity throughout all of this – is what is known as the “clear light level of mind.” We shouldn’t think of the clear light mind as an actual light or something like that. It’s just the name. It is the subtlest level of mind, which means the subtlest level of mental activity, and it is this that continues through the whole cycle of death, bardo, and rebirth with no beginning, and into enlightenment as well.
Now, if we look at the definition of mind or, better, mental activity, it’s “mere clarity and awareness.” Well, what does that mean? “Clarity” refers to the activity of making mental appearances arise. When we perceive things, actually what we perceive is a mental hologram. We get all this input of sensory information, and the sensors in our sense organs and brain translate it into electrical impulses and chemicals. Then what we actually perceive is a mental hologram based on that. So, when we talk about clarity, that’s what we are talking about. It is the mental activity of making something clear, which means to make it appear; so it’s making that mental hologram. It doesn’t mean having something in sharp focus.
“Awareness” is referring to some way of cognitively engaging with the information, such as seeing or thinking it as a mental hologram. Now, having a mental hologram arise and seeing it are the same things: the two just describe an event in two different ways. For example, it’s not that first a thought comes up and then there’s thinking it. Thought coming up and thinking a thought are the same thing, the same event just described in different ways.
Now, this subtlest level, the clear light level, of making mental holograms and of cognizing them in some way or another goes on and on, without any break in its continuity. And that third word in the definition of mental activity, “mere,” means this is all that there is. There is no separate “me” that is either making it happen, controlling it, or watching it happen. And there’s no little machine called “mind” that is making it happen, as if a separately existing “me” in our heads pushes the buttons on a mind-machine and makes perception and thinking happen. There’s simply this mental activity going on and on and on and on.
So we have clear light mind as this subtlest level of mental activity and it is devoid of grosser levels. That means that our usual levels of seeing, hearing, thinking, and all these sort of things, which are the levels where these disturbing emotions, such as our thirst for happiness, as well as our grasping for a seemingly solid, truly existent “me” are occurring – they’re grosser levels of mental activity. Clear light mental activity is much subtler than that. It’s just what’s providing the continuity, sort of like the basic level of a radio being on and providing the continuity for changes in radio station and volume.
Clear light mental activity has what’s known as “natural purity.” This means that it doesn’t exist in any impossible way. There are many impossible ways that are described, but clear light mental activity is naturally pure of all of them. In addition, natural purity also refers to the fact that, in and of itself, clear light mental activity does not make appearances of impossible ways of existing and does not have any disturbing emotions or attitudes. Clear light mental activity is the ultimate source of all mental appearances, but it is actually these grosser levels of mental activity, occurring on the basis of clear light, that make appearances seem to exist in impossible ways. And it is these grosser levels that then have disturbing emotions and attitudes toward these appearances and believe that the way they appear to exist corresponds to how they actually exist.
Maybe I need to clarify that. When we talk about making an appearance, our mental activity makes an appearance, like a mental hologram, of what something is, like a hand or me or whatever, and also an appearance of how it exists. So, for example, it could appear to me that I exist as the center of the universe; that I’m the most important one and I should always have my way. That would be an impossible way of existing. This subtlest level of mental activity, the clear light level, on its own doesn’t make appearances of any such impossible ways of existing and it doesn’t believe in them either. It has no confusion, no what we call “ignorance” or “unawareness.” That’s not going on at this level.
All of these qualities of clear light mental activity are very significant, because what they imply is that these grosser levels, where all the confusion is occurring, and where all the appearance-making of these impossible ways of existing is occurring, and all this thirsting for happiness and grasping for a truly existent “me” are happening – they’re not an intrinsic aspect of this clear light level of mental activity. This is because when we access and experience this level of mind in meditation, we find that these troublemakers are not there. So if we could get down to that clear light level and stay there forever, all this trouble of uncontrollable recurring rebirth, samsara, is never going to happen again.
True Stoppings and True Pathway Minds
So, what we want to achieve is what’s called a “true stopping,” sometimes called “true cessation” – the third noble truth. We want to stop forever these troublemakers from going on. And it is possible to achieve a true stopping of them so that these grosser levels of confusion and all these factors that activate our throwing karma and perpetuate our samsaric rebirth never recur. We can achieve that and, when we do, that’s what we call “liberation.”
But with liberation, we are still not able to stay with this level of clear light mental activity continuously. When our grosser levels of mental activity recur, although they are free of disturbing emotions and the compulsive forces of karma, they still make and perceive appearances of seemingly truly established existence. It is only when we are able to remain in the clear light state forever that we attain enlightenment.
Of course, just reaching this level of clear light mental activity by itself is not enough, because we naturally reach it at the time of our deaths before the bardo in-between period begins. Otherwise when we die, we’d have achieved liberation and even enlightenment. So, what’s necessary is having a non-conceptual understanding of voidness with that clear light level of mind. That’s what brings about the attainment of the third noble truth – true stoppings. And that clear light level of mind is the most conducive for having this type of understanding because it is subtler than the level of mind at which conceptual thought occurs, and so it is naturally non-conceptual.
This non-conceptual understanding of voidness is the fourth noble truth, known as a “true path.” “Path,” though, is not referring to something we walk on or to steps that we take. It’s referring to a way of cognizing something that acts as a path or a “pathway” to liberation and enlightenment. So I like to call the fourth noble truth “true pathways of mind.”
So we want to get this understanding of voidness, which is the understanding that all these appearances of impossible ways of existing that the mind produces under the influence of ignorance, unawareness – they don’t correspond to anything real. Thus, when we talk about voidness, we’re talking about an absence, a total absence of something that never existed in the first place and never could exist. That’s why I choose the word “voidness” rather than “emptiness.” We are not talking about a container that’s empty of something, either temporarily or permanently. We are talking about “nothing,” in the sense that there is no real referent “thing” corresponding to these deceptive appearances of impossible ways of existing. This Sanskrit word “shunya” is the word for zero in Sanskrit, so “void.”
So that’s how we would get rid of our problems forever – by staying on this clear light level of mental activity, with non-conceptual cognition of voidness, so that our grosser levels of mind never recur. It’s these grosser levels of mental activity that produce these appearances of impossible ways of existing. It’s on these grosser levels that confusion arises and we believe that these appearances correspond to reality. It’s these grosser levels that activate the karmic tendencies of our throwing karma and bring us back over and again into samsaric situations and rebirth. But also, it’s this clear light level of mental activity that has all the qualities that allow it, with the understanding of voidness, to function as the level of mind of a Buddha. Please take a moment to digest that.
One important thing to remember is that this clear light level of mental activity has the same definition as all other levels of mental activity – it is mere clarity and awareness. In other words, it too is giving rise to mental holograms, which is another way of describing its being cognitively engaged with objects. And there’s no “me” separate from this mental activity and making it happen or observing it, and there is no findable “thing” called “mind,” like some machine that is producing this mental activity.
When this clear light level is not veiled by grosser levels of consciousness distorting the appearances that it gives rise to and making them seem to exist in impossible ways, this clear light level is giving rise to what are known as “pure appearances.” This is very significant and brings us to the topic of tantra and Kalachakra.
But before we get into that, I’d like to speak a little bit more about voidness, because it’s a topic that is not only relevant to what we’ve been explaining, but it will also be mentioned a lot in the teachings that we’ll be receiving in the next few days from His Holiness. The term we’ll hear over and again is “true existence,” and that there’s no such thing as true existence. I’ve already mentioned it several times.
Well, at first that may be quite confusing because true existence is actually false existence, in the sense that true existence is false. But anyway, if we elaborate on the term “true existence,” a fuller translation would be “truly established existence.” That’s the point of the term: it means existence of something being truly established by something impossible; in other words, truly established by some factor that cannot possibly establish or prove that something exists. That factor can’t possibly establish that something exists, because that factor itself doesn’t exist.
The issue is how do we establish that something exists? For those who assert that there is such a thing as truly established existence, they claim that there is something findable on the side of an object that has the power to establish that that object exists. For example, they claim that what’s findable would be some defining characteristic that by its own power independently establishes what something is. Or they claim that there is a findable referent “thing” that corresponds to the word or name or concept of that object, and which would be the support backing up the appearance.
The Example of Santa Claus
Let’s give an example, although admittedly not a precise analogy, that will perhaps make this clear. Suppose we see a man dressed in a red suit with a white beard, and this person appears to us to be Santa Claus. He appears like that because he has the characteristic features of Santa Claus: he has a red suit and a white beard. What truly establishes that this person is Santa Claus? Well, we could say that the red suit and the white beard on the side of the man have the power just by themselves to establish and prove that this person is Santa Claus.
Well, that’s impossible, isn’t it? Although a red suit and a white beard are the conventionally accepted features of what Santa Claus looks like, it can’t be that putting on a red suit and a white beard, by their own power, actually make someone Santa Claus. If it were the case, then even a pig wearing a red suit and a white beard would also be Santa Claus. Moreover, there is no corresponding object, a real Santa Claus, a real person, who corresponds to the name or concept of Santa Claus, is there?
When we talk about words, names and concepts, we are getting into the topic of mental labeling. When someone puts on a red suit and a white beard, then people who have heard of Santa Claus will think of him as looking like Santa Claus. So we have here an imputation or a mental labeling – the man is being mentally labeled as Santa Claus. Some people have this concept of Santa Claus; they see somebody in a red suit and having a white beard, and they think that because of these characteristic features, he looks like Santa Claus. That way of thinking is valid. He does look like Santa Claus – however, not to everybody, not to someone who has never heard of Santa Claus or to a dog. But what would not be valid, what would really be false, would be to think that the red suit and white beard establish by their own power that this person really is Santa Claus. That’s a way of thinking based on the belief that there actually is a real Santa Claus who corresponds to this appearance.
Also, how did this convention of Santa Claus looking like this come about? The original inspiration for Santa Claus was the fourth-century Greek Christian bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra, famous for his generous gifts to the needy. Influenced by medieval German paganism, he evolved during the Reformation to Sinterklaas in Dutch folklore, who was then conflated with the British character of Father Christmas, made famous in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Then, in the early nineteenth-century, he became Santa Claus in North America in the poem, “The Night before Christmas.” More features were added over the following decades, and his image with a red suit and white beard became widely popularized in the 1930s through an advertising campaign by Coca Cola.
So, all the features that we think of as characterizing Santa Claus were established by conventions, by the minds of a long line of people developing this character that they named “Santa Claus.” Because of that history, then it’s clear that these features of a red suit and white beard don’t have the power by themselves to truly establish someone’s existence as Santa Claus. It was mental labeling or imputation that established this convention. So, the only thing that establishes this person as Santa Claus is the imputation itself – both the defining characteristic features and Santa Claus as characterized by them are mere imputations, decided upon by convention.
The important thing is to differentiate what a mental label refers to and something that corresponds to the label. When we see this man in a red suit and a white beard and we say, “There’s Santa Claus,” this label is referring to someone. It refers to this man who looks like that. But there’s no actual Santa Claus corresponding to the appearance. There’s nothing backing up this appearance – that’s the technical term – there’s no “back-up support” that’s propping up this appearance. There’s no real findable Santa Claus. We also can’t say that what truly establishes that this person in the red suit and white beard, who looks like Santa Claus, is the fact that there is an actual Santa Claus that he looks like. Why, because there is a total absence, a voidness, of a real Santa Claus – there is no such thing and there never was or can be. And there are no such things as defining characteristics on the side of someone that, by their own power, could truly establish this person as Santa Claus, because those characteristic features were made up by people deciding on a convention. So, such type of defining characteristics having that power is also totally absent. There is no such thing. This total absence is known as “voidness.”
The Example of “Me”
Let’s take an example that is more pertinent here, the example of “me.” Bear in mind, though, that the case of “me” is not quite the same as the case of “Santa Claus,” so we have to be careful here. Several people dressed in red suits and having white beards can all look like Santa Claus, but there is no actual findable Santa Claus that they all look like. And none of these bearded men in red suits is Santa Claus, since Santa Claus doesn’t exist. On the other hand, a series of photos spanning my life can all look like “me,” and although there is no actual findable “me” that they all look like, still “I” do exist.
Let’s look at this issue of “me” more closely. Suppose I see a whole series of pictures that span my lifetime. How do I know that that’s me throughout all these pictures? Is there anything that’s remained the same? No. Is there some characteristic feature that somehow allows me to recognize myself? Well, I can decide that there’s one: the shape of my nose or something like that, but that’s something decided upon as the defining characteristic to serve as the basis for recognizing and labeling “me.” The shape of a nose doesn’t exist by itself as a defining characteristic for “me,” unless it’s designated or labeled as a defining characteristic for allowing the identification of all these photos as me. But there are many other aspects that could be chosen as the defining characteristic for me. We could impute “me” on all sorts of things, such as being a nice guy or whatever.
So we can impute “me,” which means label “me,” on many things, and that “me” will refer to someone: it’s “me.” “Me” refers to someone, but there’s no findable “me” as some sort of findable “thing” or “being” that would correspond to the word “me.” If we think that there is such a being, what would that “me” look like? What would that “me” look like who allows me to recognize all these photos spanning my life as being “me?” There isn’t any such being, is there? So that’s what’s absent – that impossible type of being and the existence of all these photos as “me” being established by the power of there being such a type of being with defining characteristic features. Nevertheless, when we label all these photos as “me,” that label “me” is referring to someone specific – me and not you.
The problem is that we think of ourselves as a concrete findable “me” that’s always there. I wake up in the morning and it feels as if, “Here I am again” – as if a concrete findable being corresponding to the word “me” is awake again. Then, on the basis of it feeling like this, we believe that this notion of a concrete findable “me” is really “me,” the “me” that truly exists. But because such a concrete findable “me” couldn’t possibly exist, we feel insecure. We are greedy; we want more things because we feel that somehow having more things or more love or more attention or whatever will make that “me” secure. Or we want to get things away from us – we have aversion, anger. We want to get everything threatening that “me” away from us and maybe that will make that “me” secure. Because of our greed and anger, we then act, speak and think in destructive ways, and that just perpetuates what we were talking about – samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth on and on and on, lifetime to lifetime.
So it’s very important to understand this “me,” okay? What establishes that “I” exist? Well, we have the concept of “me”; we have the name “me,” and it refers to someone. That’s all that establishes someone as “me,” and it is labeled on the continuum of every moment of experience. We have all these pictures spanning my life, but there’s no findable, what we would call “solidly existent” referent “thing” – a findable “me” that corresponds to the “me” that we label on all these photos. So voidness, such an impossibly existing “me” is totally absent – there never was and never can be such a “me,” since such a “me” is impossible.
Since what I’ve explained is not easy to understand, let me elaborate a bit further. The existence of anything as “this” or “that” can never be established by something impossible. Yet somehow we have all these pictures that can be correctly identified as “me.” Conventionally, I do exist and these photos can all be validly identified as being photos of me. They are not photos of you. Yet how do we establish that they exist as photos of “me?” It’s by convention, and only by convention. A group of people agree on a convention, for instance that photos taken over a period of time can represent a specific person, “me.” So there’s the convention “me” that can be labeled onto photos of what someone looks like. There could also be certain conventions regarding what visible features remain identifiable throughout someone’s life as their defining characteristics. But that would be hard to establish since, for instance you could change those features through cosmetic surgery or gene therapy.
In any case, this convention of all these photos being pictures of the same person, “me,” would have to not be contradicted by valid cognition, either on a conventional level or on the deepest level. For instance, people that knew me and saw me at different stages in my life remember correctly that that is what I looked like. So the only things that validly establish all these photos as “me” come from the side of the mind. Nothing can establish their existence as photos of me from the side of the photos themselves. Moreover, their existence as “me” cannot possibly be established by a findable concrete “me” that would correspond to the word “me” labeled onto each and every one of these photos. We can’t point to a findable “me” and say that all these photos are pictures of that “me.” So, there’s a total absence, a voidness, of that impossible way of establishing their existence as “me.” Please think about that for a moment.
Application to Clear Light Mind
Okay, now to get back to the clear light mind. Clear light mental activity gives rise to the appearances of what things are, regardless of whether these appearances are accurate or inaccurate. When our mental activity is affected by a cause for inaccuracy, like astigmatism, then the mental hologram that clear light mind gives rise to can be the appearance of a blur, for instance when I take my glasses off and look at a my hand. Although it is correct that what appears to me is a blur, that’s an inaccurate appearance of what things are. No one would agree that my hand is a blur.
Clear light mind also gives rise to the appearance of how things exist, and these can be either accurate or inaccurate. They are inaccurate here also when they are affected by causes for confusion, namely the habits of grasping for truly established existence. For instance, it appears that there’s a concrete findable “me” sitting inside my head talking, the author of that voice that goes on in my head. That is normally what people think of as “me,” the one thinking, “What should I do now?” “What will people think of me?” and so on. It seems like there’s a real, solidly existent “me,” truly established by its own power, sitting inside my head seeing information coming in on a big video screen and hearing sounds through a speaker, deciding what to do, and then pushing some buttons that control speech and movement. But that manner of how “I” exist doesn’t correspond to anything real, just as the case with the blur. The horrible thing, though, is that it feels like it’s real, and so we believe that a “me” having solidly findable existence corresponds to something real. But that’s just a “deceptive appearance,” we call it, of a “me” that appears to exist in a manner that doesn’t correspond to how the “me” actually does exist. The conventionally established “me” – the “me” that is established merely by mental labeling alone – is deceptively appearing as though its existence were truly established by its own power, from its own side.
The clear light mind itself is naturally devoid of these impossible ways of existing and, on its own, it doesn’t give rise to appearances of them and doesn’t believe in them. It is only when, due to the habits of grasping for true existence, the clear light mental activity gives rise to grosser levels of mind that problems begin. The grosser levels of mind are the ones that cause the distortion that makes appearances seem to have their existence be truly established. The grosser levels of mind are the ones that are accompanied by unawareness that these appearances of truly established existence don’t refer to anything real. The grosser levels of mind are the ones that are accompanied by disturbing emotions and attitudes. The grosser levels of mind are the ones with which conceptual thought occurs.
Conceptual thought, by the way, always projects truly established existence because it cognizes things in terms of what seem to be truly established categories. An example is the category “me,” to which all examples of “me” imputed on this series of pictures spanning my life belong, because we believe that they all have the defining characteristic features that we imagine allow them to fit in this category “me” by their own power.
Because the clear light level of mental activity is itself devoid of existing in impossible ways and in itself does not cause the various distortions and subsequent problems that the grosser levels of mental activity give rise to, it can be transformed. Here, the transformation means that through sophisticated methods we can cause our clear light mental activity no longer to give rise to these grosser levels, so that its naturally occurring good qualities function fully. When our clear light mental activity is veiled by these grosser levels, its good qualities are either hampered completely or severely restricted. The naturally occurring good qualities that are completely prevented include giving rise to pure appearances – appearances that do not seem to have their existence truly established. The way they appear to have their existence established is the way in which it is actually established, namely by arising dependently on a huge network of other factors, especially mental labeling. These good qualities also include having non-conceptual cognition of all dependently arising appearances as interconnected.
If the clear light mind existed in impossible ways, for instance as a concrete findable “thing,” a true stopping of the causes of suffering and problems could never occur. The clear light level of mental activity would forever be stained and limited. The voidness of the clear light mind, then, is known as the “abiding Buddha-nature trait.” It is what allows for us to become enlightened.
The Two Networks
In addition to this abiding Buddha-nature trait, we have several evolving Buddha-nature factors. These are the factors that evolve or grow, so that, when built up and dedicated with bodhichitta, we develop from them the enlightening physical bodies and minds of a Buddha. The two main such factors I usually call the two “networks.” Most translators call them the two “collections,” but “collection” implies something like a collection of stamps. But we’re not talking about a collection of stamps. What we’re talking about is a network of various forces that work together, network together, and we have two networks here.
The first I call a “network of positive force,” usually translated as a “collection of merit.” But we’re not talking about merit points or anything like that; we’re talking about positive karmic force or potential. Each time we do or say or think something constructive, it builds up some positive force. These positive forces network together and strengthen each other, creating a positive potential. When the right circumstances come along, this positive potential ripens into, in other words gives rise to our experiences of ordinary happiness. And we all have a network of positive force, because no matter how miserable we might be, we sometimes do feel happy. It doesn’t have to be Fred Astaire joyously dancing down the street, not that level of happiness, but some level of happiness. That demonstrates that we all do have this basic network of positive force.
And we also have a network of what I call “deep awareness,” sometimes translated as a network of “wisdom” or “insight.” But since worms have this network as well, it’s somewhat awkward to call it “wisdom.” “Deep awareness” refers, among other things, to the basic primitive ways in which our minds work. No matter what our rebirth state, even as a worm, we are still able to take in information; we’re able to fit things equally together into categories; we’re able to distinguish one thing from another; and so on. This network of awareness and experience, then, is basically talking about the fundamental ways in which our mental activity is aware of things; in other words, how the mind works. And so we all have that.
The Three Networks
As I mentioned, then, our two networks of positive force and deep awareness, when built up and dedicated with bodhichitta, transform, respectively, into the physical bodies and omniscient minds that we have as Buddhas. They are evolving Buddha-nature traits. However, although the classic presentations don’t speak about a network of negative force, since it’s not a Buddha-nature trait, we also all have that as well. We can say that because it’s our network of negative force that’s responsible for why we sometimes feel unhappy. So that’s there as well, with no beginning, coming from our destructive behavior.
If we speak of all three networks, we can say that they are responsible for the defining characteristics of mental activity. The networks of positive and negative force give rise to the mental holograms of the content of our mental activity. If we speak in the context of our samsaric existence, the content includes the types of consciousness we have – sensory or mental – the objects that appear to these types of consciousness, and some of the mental factors that accompany these types of consciousness, especially the contacting awareness and level of happiness with which the objects are experienced. The network of deep awareness gives rise to the ways in which mental activity engages with its objects – merely taking in information, grouping related information together, knowing what things are, and so on.
What appear to us from our network of positive force are the relatively nice things that we encounter and that happen to us. What also ripen are our experiences of contacting things as being pleasant and our subsequent feelings of ordinary happiness. From our network of negative force we’ll get not such nice appearances, frightful appearances, things happening to us that we don’t like, and so on. We also experience contacting awareness of things as being unpleasant and subsequent feelings of unhappiness. Together, these two mechanisms describe our samsaric situation. From our network of deep awareness, although we might be able to take in some information, make some connections between things, and so on, these are quite limited in their scope. We certainly are not omniscient.
The Four Subtle Creative-Energy Drops
The Kalachakra teachings offer a further explanation of how the samsaric process of appearance-making works from our networks of positive and negative karmic force. This is referring to how the appearances of seemingly truly existent ordinary things arise, and this is going to be through four types of subtle creative-energy drops.
Our samsaric bodies have many, many different types of subtle creative-energy drops, or seminal drops, but there are four special, subtle ones located, one each, at our forehead, throat, heart, and navel chakras. This is why we are always visualizing seed syllables in these four places, because that’s where these four drops are and we want to purify and transform them.
In the Kalachakra teachings, we also talk about the “winds of karma.” To simplify what happens, we can think of these winds of karma, coming from our networks of karmic force, as being somewhat like a paintbrush and the four drops are somewhat like buckets of paint. The paintbrush can paint appearances either externally around us or internally, referring to the appearances of our bodies and what appears only in our minds. When the winds pass through the drop at our foreheads, the winds of karma paint the external and internal appearances we experience when we’re awake. When they pass through the drop at our throats, we get the appearances that arise in our dreams. Through the drop at our hearts, we get what we experience in deep sleep without any dreams, basically a blank darkness. When they pass through the drop at our navel, the so-called “fourth occasion,” we experience the appearance of intense moments of bliss. Remember, appearance doesn’t mean just visual appearances; they’re any sounds, tastes, physical sensations, emotions, feelings, thoughts – just something arising.
It’s through the media of these four drops and karmic winds then, that our karma is responsible for all our experiences in samsara. That means all our experiences of the arising of mental holograms of different situations that we encounter and a cognitive engagement with them, and our experiencing them with some level of either not liking what’s happening and feeling unhappy – the suffering of suffering – or liking it and feeling ordinary happiness – the suffering of change. And these experiences are accompanied by and bring on further attachment and repulsion.
External, Internal, and Alternative Cycles
Kalachakra presents what we experience like this in terms of both external and internal cycles. Regardless of what type of rebirth we take, on an external level we experience how the universe appears, with the regular motion of the stars and the planets. On an internal level, we experience what happens with our bodies as they function and we age. So, externally, we have the cycles of days, months and years, and cycles of astrological configurations. Internally, we have the life cycle of birth, aging, sickness, death, bardo, and rebirth, and also the daily cycles of the breath and so on. “Kalachakra” means “cycles of time,” sometimes translated as “wheel of time.” This refers, on a samsaric level, to these repeating external and internal cycles that measure the passage of time. That’s the samsaric situation, arising because of our unawareness about reality and perpetuated by that ignorance.
But, similarly, with a correct understanding of reality, that pure light level of mental activity, as I explained, can also give rise to pure appearances, experienced with blissful non-conceptual awareness of voidness. And that’s the alternative Kalachakra, sometimes called the “other Kalachakra.”
Buddha can manifest in any form, for instance as one or another meditational deity, what I call a “Buddha-figure,” such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Tara, or whatever, to help practitioners gain liberation and enlightenment through their own practice in these forms. After all, Buddhas only do what is of benefit to others: that’s the whole purpose for becoming a Buddha, to help others. So, with that motivation, Buddha appeared in the form of this Kalachakra mandala having 722 figures in it, and explained the empowerment, the two progressive levels of practice, and the resultant stage of Buddhahood that we can achieve through its practices. These, all together, constitute the alternative cycles of time. Basically, they’re a method for overcoming the constraints and suffering of the external and internal cycles, in order to become free of them, beyond the usual ravages of time. That means getting our clear light level of mental activity to stop giving rise to the samsaric troublemakers, on both the external and internal levels of our experience. This includes stopping giving rise to a body having these four subtle creative energy drops and winds of karma. Instead, we want to get our clear light minds to give rise to an enlightened configuration, both externally and internally. And so we have this whole configuration of the Kalachakra mandala, all these deities, and so on, as a way to help us to achieve that transformation or purification.
Mental Pictures that Represent Categories of Things
Now, it might seem strange how our clear light mental activity could give rise to our environment and our bodies as they appear in the Kalachakra mandala. Let me give an example that perhaps is not so precise, but can maybe give an idea of what’s involved.
There are many types of mental holograms that our minds can give rise to in order to perceive what’s going on around us and what’s going on in our minds. So let’s use the example of a dog. Think of a dog.
Now how is it that we can think of a dog? Well, what comes up in our minds is a mental picture of a dog. First we think of a category, in this case “dog,” and with that category of “dog” we think of something that represents a dog for us. So someone might think in terms of a spaniel; someone might think in terms of a German shepherd, or whatever. Everyone has a different mental picture that represents a dog for them. So if we think of a dog like that, we relate dogs that we see to this mental picture. We think, “That’s a nice dog, it’s really pretty; or what a strange looking dog, whatever. There are various ways we perceive different dogs in terms of our ideal of what a dog should look like.
Like that, when we think in terms of the category “my body” or “the universe I live in,” we could have different mental representations for them that would allow us to think about them. This is very significant then, because what that means is that Buddha presented several mental pictures, or whatever you want to call them, of what a universe looks like, with Mount Meru, the continents, things like that. There are two main pictures of that in the Buddhist literature, and then there are the many pictures that science has come up with over the years. Actually, I’ll speak in much more detail about this in my second talk about Buddhist cosmology.
But basically, with the Kalachakra teachings, Buddha presented mental pictures that represent a universe and a human body in a way of conceptualizing the two that are parallel to each other. They have the same proportions, and so on. And then Buddha also manifested the Kalachakra mandala palace with its central deity, and both of them have exactly the same proportions as the universe and the human body that Buddha taught. So everything here – external, internal and alternative – is parallel, and this is done as a method, a very helpful method, for enabling us to get down to that clear light level of mental activity and change the type of appearances it gives rise to.
The Analogy of a Two-Room House
Let’s use another example to illustrate the process through which we can make this transformation. The example is a house. And in that house we have two rooms; let’s call them the “samsara room” and the “enlightenment room.” Each of them has a staircase that goes down to the basement. The basement would be the clear light level. In that basement is where we have the wiring for the lights to the house, but they are connected only to one room, the samsara room. So what happens is that we go through a lifetime in the samsara room and, when we die, we go down to the basement. Our karmic tendencies and potentials then take effect and change the decor of the samsara room. They also cause us compulsively to go back up the stairs to the samsara room, where we lead our next life. And that just repeats, on and on and on and on, with each life having the ups and downs of unhappiness and short-lived happiness that never satisfies. Boring!
So what we want to do is, in our meditation, go down to the basement. Therefore, in the first stage of our meditation, we condition ourselves by simulating going down the staircase to the basement in our imaginations. It doesn’t mean we die, but rather we model our meditation on what we experience when we actually go down the staircase as we die. By the way, the process of going down to the basement, representing the subtlest, deepest level of existence, is also parallel to what happens at the end of the universe, as it’s portrayed by the Buddha in the external Kalachakra teachings.
So we go down to the basement, and when we’re in the basement what we have to do is somehow change all the wiring. We need to disconnect it from the samsara room and have it connect instead to the enlightenment room and light that up so that pure appearances arise.
So now the question is, how do we do that? And the way that we do that is to understand that what’s going on in the samsara room is all like an illusion. It’s just bringing on suffering and unhappiness. And even if these samsaric situations are pleasant and we are somewhat happy, still they’re unsatisfactory and frustrating. They don’t last. And we also understand that in compulsively going up into that samsara room, we’re making those illusion-like appearances arise because of our habits of confusions and ignorance. And we believe that everything that our confused mental activity gives rise to is truly established, because all these appearances seem to exist like that. Everything seems to exist established on its own, isolated from everything else, arising from the power of something findable on its own side. And so because we believe that this deceptive appearance corresponds to reality, we have all those problems. So, by understanding that these deceptive appearances are not corresponding to anything real, we stop being fooled by them.
But, in doing this, we have to be careful to avoid the extreme of nihilism. To do that, we need to be careful not to confuse these two expressions: “referring to something” and “corresponding to something.” These deceptive appearances refer to something. We experience samsara; that’s not the issue. But there’s nothing that corresponds to it.
To understand the distinction between “referring” and “corresponding,” the example that I often use is love, an emotion, as in “I love you.” That word “love” is used by lots of people, and it refers to something, doesn’t it? It refers to something that they actually feel. But what is love? We look it up in the dictionary, and there’s the definition: “strong affection for another, arising out of kinship or personal ties.” But is there such a thing as “love” existing by itself, somewhere there, isolated from anybody experiencing it, and now we’re going to plug into it, and we’re going to experience “love?” It’s not like that.
So is there love? Is there some solid thing all by itself, like a dictionary entry, that’s called love? Well no, although it feels like that. It seems like that, since I’m experiencing love, and it’s great. And I’m feeling something that’s referring to something. When I say, “I love you,” it’s referring to some emotion. But there’s nothing corresponding to it like in a dictionary, sitting by itself on a shelf, and now I’m feeling it. Got that? Let that sink in for a moment.
Okay? So in order to stay in that basement and not be fooled out of habit into going back up the samsara stairs, through the process of rebirth and so on, we need to focus on our understanding that all of that in the samsara room is just trouble, and that I’m not going to go there anymore. In other words, we need to focus on the absence of real referent “things” that correspond to those deceptive appearances, and stay with that understanding of voidness. Now of course that will take discipline and perfect concentration, and so on.
Then, what’s amazing is that when we go up the stairs into the enlightenment room, we can still maintain that clear light level of understanding voidness. Our mental activity doesn’t get grosser and we don’t lose that non-conceptual understanding of voidness like we do when we go up the stairs to the samsara room. Because of that difference, then when we go into the enlightenment room, the appearances that our mental activity naturally gives rise to are pure. Everything appears interconnected, interdependent, not existing in isolation and so on like entries in a dictionary. We see clearly, non-conceptually, that their existence can only be established merely as what the mental labels for them refer to, and certainly not as truly existent referent “things” corresponding to those labels.
Now in order to gain that understanding, we need to have renunciation. What’s renunciation? Renunciation is the determination to be free from suffering this samsaric mess. And what needs to be given up? It’s not just saying, “I want to be free”; we need to give up this samsaric mess completely, which means, “I don’t want to go any more into this samsaric room. It’s only trouble. And I’ve been going there forever, with no beginning. It’s really boring; I’m really tired of it.”
Boring, actually, is the feeling that’s behind renunciation. It’s not that we’re angry with ourselves for doing it, “Oh I’m so stupid; I shouldn’t do that.” That’s not the sense. The emotion behind renunciation is absolute boredom. “This is boring, and I don’t want to continue doing this. So this time I’m not going to go on that ride anymore.” And we’re determined to be free of it: “I’m going to give it up.”
That means giving up the ordinary appearance of how things seem to us. This is quite profound. This is quite a large giving-up of something – for example, the appearance of me being the center of the universe; that I should always have my way; that everyone should pay attention to me, and everybody should love me, and so on. But why should everybody love me? Not everybody loved Buddha, so how can I expect everyone to love me? This is a very important insight, actually, very, very important. Not everybody liked the Buddha, so why should I expect everybody to like me?
So we are determined to be free of all of that, and also what we need is bodhichitta. Although the word “bodhichitta” literally means “a mind aimed at bodhi, a purified state,” it’s very important to understand precisely what bodhichitta is. Bodhichitta is supported by love and compassion, so it’s brought on by love and compassion; it’s not the same as love or compassion.
Love is the wish for everybody to be happy and to have the causes of happiness, and compassion is the wish for everybody to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. But when we say everybody, we mean everybody – it’s not very easy – equally, so all beings. Because of their karma, some are in an insect rebirth: we want them as well to be happy. That’s a big one, because they’re not forever stuck in an insect body, an insect rebirth, and so on. It’s just their karma that’s manifesting this type of body and rebirth. Like that as well, our mother could be like that; so love and compassion are a great love and a great compassion. They’re not something to be trivialized – equally, everybody.
Bodhichitta is also supported by what His Holiness sometimes refers to as “universal responsibility,” the pure wish – there are different ways of translating the term. I call it an “exceptional resolve,” which is that “I’m going to help everybody get rid of all this suffering and help them to reach enlightenment; and even if I have to do it myself, I’m going to do it.” This doesn’t mean that we insist that “I’m the only one who’s going to do it, that I’m going to be a control freak and only I have to do it.” It’s certainly not that. But rather, “I’ll never give up – even if I have to do it myself, I am going to do it.” That’s the basis.
And what is bodhichitta? Bodhichitta is a mind that is focused on our own individual enlightenments that have not yet happened. That’s a very important point to understand. When we want to meditate on something, Tsongkhapa explained very clearly that we need to know what it is that the mind is focused on, in other words, what is the mental hologram that is being produced here, and how does the mind cognize it or relate to it.
So we have compassion, which is meditating by focusing on various beings, specifically on their suffering; and the way our minds relate to that suffering is with the wish that it be gone. That’s compassion; that’s not bodhichitta. That meditation on compassion comes first. With bodhichitta, on the other hand, we are focused on our not-yet-happening enlightenments, but which can happen on the basis of these Buddha-nature factors. On the basis of our network of positive force that is dedicated to enlightenment, our mental activity can give rise to an enlightening body and an untainted blissful awareness. On the basis of our network of deep awareness dedicated to enlightenment, it can give rise to the omniscient mind of a Buddha. The fact that none of this exists in impossible ways – like frozen into one way that can never change, that’s impossible – this is responsible for the voidness of our minds as Buddhas.
Plus there’s another very important factor, which is part of Buddha-nature, which is that the whole system can be uplifted and inspired. It is a system that is responsive to inspiration.
“Inspiration” is sometimes translated as “blessing,” which I find is an inappropriate term having connotations from non-Buddhist systems. Rather, the term here means inspiration – literally, an uplifting, a brightening. This refers to our mental activity having the ability to be inspired so that it gives rise to an enlightened state.
Inspiration can come from our spiritual teachers, the Buddhas, the lineage figures; it also can come from all these beings who are suffering. They inspire us to improve ourselves, so that we can truly help them. So that enlightenment, which has not yet happened, can happen on the basis of all these Buddha-nature factors.
The Validity of Imputing “Me” on the Entire Continuum of Our Mental Activity
If we picture our mental continuums in a graphic way, like a succession of scenes in a movie that’s playing, it’s an ongoing sequence. It’s not that the future is taking place somewhere down the line over there and that we have to move on to reach it; it’s not like that. The future isn’t happening now, anywhere. It is simply that the sequence of our lifetimes is going on, with one moment happening at a time. And just as in this lifetime we can validly label “me” backwards on all the previous moments in that sequence – “me” as a baby, “me” as a child – and just as we can also validly label “me” further down the line in the sequence – “me” as an old man or an old woman – likewise, we can project it further on down the line in the continuum. If we continue to build up the networks of positive force and deep awareness, with both dedicated to our enlightenment, then on the basis of the continuity that the building-up of these networks provide, it is possible that with a tremendous amount of hard work we could become enlightened. In other words, we could validly label “me” on ourselves as enlightened beings.
So in terms of our enlightenments, we could impute “me” on the enlightened portion in the sequence of our mental continuums, further down the line. But that portion is not yet happening. That’s what we mean by “future” in Buddhism – it’s not yet happening; but it can happen. Also we should remember that it’s not inevitable that it will happen. It’s not that we can sit back and if we stay on the ride long enough, we’re going to reach enlightenment. It’s not like that either. We have to put in an awful lot of hard work, because we can just continue going on the samsara experience forever if we don’t wake up and realize that this is really boring, and we don’t want to continue doing that, and that there’s a way out.
Focusing on Our Not-Yet-Happening Enlightenments
So we are focused on our not-yet-happening enlightenments, and how does the mind relate to it? What’s the cognitive engagement? It is with two intentions: the intention to achieve it through all the hard work – and being realistic about how difficult it’s going to be, and what’s going to be involved – and the intention to benefit everybody as much as possible once we have achieved that goal, and as much as we can all along the way.
Now how do we focus on our own individual enlightenment that is not yet happening? We’re not focusing on Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. We’re not focusing on some general enlightenment. We’re focusing on our own individual enlightenment, and we do that by visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure such as Kalachakra. We imagine that we are in the form of this Kalachakra deity and his universe, or the mandala. That means our mental activity needs to give rise to these enlightening forms as a mental hologram. And that represents for us our not-yet- happening enlightenment, which we know has not yet happened, so we’re not fooled; but we also know that it can happen. That means that our labeling “me” on this mental hologram is a valid labeling; it’s not crazy.
Please think about that for a moment.
Bodhichitta and the Kalachakra Visualizations
That’s how we meditate on bodhichitta in tantra. A lot of people confuse the two, and just meditate on compassion, thinking that this is bodhichitta meditation. They’re not the same. So for having a bodhichitta motivation for receiving this Kalachakra empowerment, what we need to think is: “I’m going to attain enlightenment; I’m going to do it. This is what I came here for to this empowerment. I’m going to represent my not-yet-happening enlightenment by this Buddha figure, Kalachakra, and I’m going to imagine that I already exist in that form, although of course I know that that is not actually the case yet.”
For this, we need to understand that although now, in our unenlightened state, it’s our ordinary mental activity that is giving rise to a mental hologram of us as Kalachakras – in our imaginations, as it were – this mental hologram represents what can ultimately be produced simply from the clear light level of our mental activity and then we will actually appear like that. So we imagine that even now it’s our clear light mental activity giving rise to this mental hologram and not the ordinary level that generates the image of ourselves as an overweight old man, for example in my own case.
In addition, we imagine that we are able to communicate in the way that a Buddha does, which means that we are able to communicate perfectly to everybody in their own languages, with full knowledge of each person’s way of thinking and understanding. We know exactly what to say to each of them that’s going to be beneficial, and we can appear in any sort of manner that will be helpful, and so on.
Further, we have equal love toward everybody, and while saying mantras, which are like the speech of a Buddha, we have this enlightening appearance of a Kalachakra. The appearance is very complex. Instead of our samsaric situation in which we have samsaric energy-winds, channels, and so on, samsaric elements of earth, water, fire, and so on, samsaric senses, limbs, etc, these all appear as clusters of deities instead. So during the empowerment, we will imagine that our various bodily aspects take on these pure forms.
Resume of the Analogy of the Two-Room House and Basement
Now to go back to our analogy of the basement and these two rooms, at the moment we are in the samsara room, but we have the determination to be free – an overwhelming sense that this samsara room is horrible and we do not in any way want to continue staying there or returning there after we die. In order to prevent that, we need to stay focused on voidness: we realize that the way that things appear to exist in the samsara room does not correspond to anything real and that our belief that it does correspond just produces problems and suffering for us. By building up the strong habit of focusing in this way on voidness while still in the samsara room and imagining that we stay focused on that when we go down to the basement, we build up the causes for actually focusing on voidness when we actually are able to reach the basement.
Now in order to be able to go instead into that enlightenment room once we are in the basement, we need to have the strong intention to go there – we want very strongly to go there – and we need have to have some idea of what it’s like there. We understand that our appearance there will be that of a Buddha-figure, so we prepare by imagining that we look like that now while we are still in the samsara room. And of course we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are already in the enlightenment room, when in fact we are only imagining that we’re there.
And what are we going to do once we’re actually in the enlightenment room? We’re not going to just hang out. The whole purpose of going there is to benefit others as much as we can – to show them the way that they can reach the enlightenment room themselves. That’s really what the practice is all about.
Now what is the empowerment all about? Most people refer to it as an “initiation,” but literally the Tibetan word for it, “wang,” means “empowerment.” It activates the Buddha-nature potentials on our mental continuums, empowering them to give rise to our enlightened state. How does the empowerment activate them? It activates them through inspiration – inspiration from the presence of the vajra master, His Holiness, and from the whole ambience, the whole environment that we’re in. We spend all these days beforehand in a peaceful environment in which everybody is interested in spiritual matters, being kind, and so on. That’s very inspiring, isn’t it? And that inspiration is what is going to activate these potentials, these seeds, if we are open enough to receive that inspiration. To return to our analogy, while still in the samsara room, we imagine that we are entering the enlightenment room and, there, the vajra master Kalachakra and the environment in the room inspire us to work to actually go there through our practice.
The Sanskrit term for an empowerment, abhishekha, means “sprinkling.” The primary connotation is “sprinkling seeds with water,” a process that activates or empowers the seeds to grow and bear their fruit. But “sprinkling” also has a second connotation, which is “sprinkling or planting more seeds.” The way that the empowerment plants more seeds is that we consciously try to have some sort of experience, on whatever level we can, of what it would be like to go into and be that enlightenment room. So we try as best as we can to generate and maintain an awareness of voidness with a blissful state of mind and imagine, simultaneously with that, that we are appearing in the forms of various Buddha-figures from the Kalachakra mandala. Inspiration from His Holiness Kalachakra and from the ambiance and the ceremony uplifts what we are generating and imagining into an actual, spiritually moving experience that makes a deep impression on our minds. In Buddhist terminology, it “plants seeds.” By recalling these experiences later in our meditation practice, they serve as a basis for further growth.
The Buddha-figures that we visualize ourselves as don’t need to be in sharp focus with all the details; just some sort of mental hologram needs to arise. That means that we no longer think of ourselves in terms of what we ordinarily look like and what we are wearing, and we certainly don’t worry about being overweight or anything like that. Instead, we imagine ourselves, His Holiness and the building we’re in as being pure and in the form of the Kalachakra deities and mandala palace. Also, at our stage, we aren’t seeing all appearances like that with our eyes; so don’t worry about that. We’re not capable of such an experience yet, so our visual perception remains as is. It’s our mental image that is changed and this is superimposed on the visual image that we see.
As for having a blissful awareness of voidness throughout the ceremony, the minimum that we need to have would be, perhaps, the understanding that the projections and fantasies coming from our disturbing emotions and attitudes don’t correspond to reality. For instance, thinking that “His Holiness is so wonderful up there on the throne, and I’m like this stupid donkey down here that could never do anything like him” – that’s garbage; that doesn’t correspond to anything real.
With hard work and effort, all of us are capable of achieving the same as His Holiness. So our understanding of voidness doesn’t need to be terribly profound, but just something.
And while thinking in terms of voidness like that, try to have a happy frame of mind. “This is great!” It doesn’t have to be intense bliss, but simply be happy to be at the empowerment and try to be open and receptive to what will be happening. Obviously, if we’re anxious about whether or not we will feel inspired and we artificially try to force ourselves to feel inspired, based on a strong preoccupation and worry about a seemingly solid “me”; that won’t work. Just relax; be in a happy frame of mind. Don’t freak out if you get lost during the ceremony. Try to be aware that the projections of your fears and worries don’t correspond to reality. Try to imagine yourselves, everyone around you and His Holiness in pure forms; and of course try to maintain a bodhichitta motivation for being here. All of this will reinforce and plant more seeds for your networks of positive potentials and deep awareness not only to be activated, but to grow further so that they will give rise eventually to the enlightening body, speech, omniscient mind and blissful awareness of a Buddha.
In short, this is what we want to do in the empowerment: we want to be open enough to be inspired by what’s going on, and to have some sort of conscious experience of a blissful awareness of the voidness of all that is happening. And all of that is within the structure of taking the vows. Taking the vows is essential for the whole empowerment process. Sakya Pandita wrote that without taking the vows, you do not actually receive the empowerment.
When we take the vows – whether the lay pratimoksha, the bodhisattva or the tantric vows, it’s absolutely essential that we consciously take them. We can’t just sit there and not know what’s going on when the vows are being given, and then that means we’ve taken the vows. When we consciously take them, we are consciously taking them on as the structure for our lives. They set the boundaries of what we will not go beyond and this provides the container for our practice.
The bodhisattva vows are to avoid ways of thinking, speaking or acting that would make it very difficult to help others. For example, praising ourselves and belittling everybody else in order to gain power and wealth. Tantric vows, such as not missing meditation on voidness every day, contribute to our practice becoming successful. If we are actually going to take the empowerment, because we’re committed to attaining enlightenment, then we would appreciate the importance of keeping the vows, and we will take them on gladly.
If, in fact, we’re not ready to take the vows, then we can attend the empowerment as what His Holiness calls a “neutral observer.” That’s perfectly fine. In my book Introduction to the Kalachakra Initiation, I describe in great detail how we can benefit from the experience as a neutral observer. But if we want to actually receive the empowerment, actually get into some level of practice – it doesn’t need to be 722 deities, the full form, but some sort of practice – then we take the vows and try to participate as best as we can in the process.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Serkong Rinpoche’s Advice for If We Get Lost during the Ceremony
Also what’s very important for the empowerment is this piece of advice that my teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, gave me. Serkong Rinpoche was his Holiness’s Kalachakra teacher. He advised to regard the empowerment like a movie in the sense that there’s one scene happening after another. All the scenes aren’t playing simultaneously, just one at a time. When scene one is finished; it’s finished. If you weren’t able to follow it, you weren’t able to do any sort of visualization or anything, forget about it, because scene two is now what’s playing. So just try to keep up, and if you’re not able to keep up, forget about it, don’t worry about it.
That’s very, very important because one of the big dangers in such a complex ritual as the Kalachakra empowerment is that it is so complex, there are so many things that are happening, that you feel overwhelmed, like “I can’t do this.” So you sort of zone out; you don’t pay attention; you give up. That would be sad to do that. So just to maintain the most basic visualization, which, as I said, is our own body in a pure form, His Holiness in a pure form, not thinking anything weird about what’s going on, having a happy state of mind, and being open to being inspired – that’s enough. And we keep on going: we don’t get stuck in scene one when scene three is playing. Okay?
So, what is the relevance of all of this to our lives? I think that the message that we can take from all of this is that “I can do better.” We have Buddha-nature; we have all these factors that enable us to become Buddhas. And we know all the work that reaching enlightenment will entail – we’re not naive about that. And we know that it’s possible that this basis level of our Buddha-nature factors can give rise to an enlightened level. So if we have this sense that “I can do better than what I’m doing now” – especially if what we are doing is unsatisfactory and just really giving us a lot of problems – then this gives us courage. This is what His Holiness is really emphasizing: the importance of self-confidence, especially in terms of compassion. Compassion helps us to be more self-confident because we see that we can actually do something that’s constructive, something that’s helpful. And so with this empowerment, try at least to have the feeling that it is possible to do better, and try to take home with you this inspiration, that it is possible. No one said that it’s easy, but it is possible.
The Jonang Tradition
Could you say something about the Jonang tradition of Kalachakra?
There are many different lineages of Kalachakra. Originally, the Kalachakra teachings were transmitted to India from Shambhala by two Indian pandits, who actually received them in pure visions on their way to Shambhala. Three different lineages developed of these teachings in India, and various combinations of pieces of these three were transmitted from India to Tibet through four different lineages. In addition, there are separate transmission lineages of the Kalachakra tantra texts, their commentaries, the empowerment, the generation stage, and the complete stage; and each of those lineages was not a single line of transmission. So the whole issue of lineage is extremely complex, with no Tibetan Buddhist school having Kalachakra lineages that are totally unique, without at least some parts shared in common with other schools.
In any case, one of the Tibetan Kalachakra lineages is the Jonang one – the Jonangpas are a sub-school within Sakya. Although their lineage does not exclude figures masters in other Kalachakra lineages, the Jonangpas do have their own unique philosophical assertions that they derive from the Kalachakra literature. The Jonangpas assert that the basis and the result are the same. What this means is that, on the basis level, not only do we have clear light mental activity with its various good qualities, but we also have on this level the physical body of a Buddha there already. I am not quite sure, but I would guess that this basis-level Buddha-body is referring to basis-level devoid forms.
Then also the Jonangpas combined these three Indian and four prior Tibetan lineages in a slightly different combination than the other Tibetan schools. This formed a package of lineages that then was blended with other transmission lines in other Tibetan schools, for instance Gelug.
Illusory Body and Devoid Form Body
What’s the difference between illusory body and devoid forms?
In anuttarayoga tantra in general, when we want to bring about the causes for the physical form of a Buddha, then at the initial stage, the generation stage, we imagine ourselves in that form. On the second stage, the complete stage, everything is complete for being able actually to access the clear light level of mental activity and to generate from that level the direct causes for the physical bodies of a Buddha.
Let me elaborate. On the generation stage, we perfect laser-like microscopic concentration so that we are able, on the complete stage, to actually manipulate the subtle energy-winds of our subtle bodies so that we can stop them from coursing around the body, but rather to enter, abide and dissolve at the heart chakra in the central channel. That enables us to access the clear light level of our mental activity.
By the way, energy-wind – lung in Tibetan, prana in Sanskrit – and mental activity refer to the same essential phenomenon, but just describe it from different points of view. From the subjective point of view, the phenomenon is mental activity; from the physical point of view, it is energy-wind. So, by dissolving the subtle energy-winds, we simultaneously dissolve and stop the conceptual mental activity that is their counterpart. These energy-winds, when coursing through the body, are responsible for the mental holograms that arise in connection with our ordinary sensory and mental cognition. They constitute impure appearances.
These courser energy-winds arise from the subtlest energy-wind of the subtlest clear light level of mental activity. The Guhyasamaja system, as the source of the illusory body teachings, explains that when we access the clear-light level of mental activity on the advanced steps of complete stage practice, we also access the subtlest energy-wind. This subtlest energy-wind is what constitutes pure appearances. From the habits we have built up through visualizing ourselves as a Buddha on the generation stage, we can generate the subtlest energy-wind into the form of a Buddha when we have accessed the clear-light level.
Before we have reached enlightenment, the form of a Buddha that we generate from the subtlest energy-wind is known as an “illusory body.” Although the clear light level of mental activity is capable of simultaneous cognition of the two truths – voidness and appearance – we are unable to sustain this clear light level for more than the period of total absorption on voidness in clear light meditation. Usually, we’re able to focus on appearances as being devoid of truly established existence, like an illusion, only during the subsequent attainment phase of voidness meditation, after total absorption. Because of that, we conduct our meditation on the causes for illusory body, before the clear light stage of complete stage meditation, only during this subsequent phase of voidness practice – the so-called “post-meditation” phase, when we focus on all appearances being like an illusion, in other words when we focus on illusion-like voidness. On the generation stage, this type of practice refers to visualizing ourselves as Buddhas after our meditation on voidness that simulates the dissolution process of death.
Devoid forms do not refer to forms that are devoid of truly established existence. If it did, then all forms would be devoid forms, because everything is devoid of true existence. Rather, devoid forms are devoid of gross particles. They are merely the reflexive appearance of the clear light mind. The Kalachakra literature describes them like images that automatically arise in a magic mirror. Kalachakra practice takes, as the cause for the physical bodies of a Buddha, devoid forms, and not illusory bodies. Devoid forms automatically arise from the clear light mind even on the basis level – this is why I believe the Jonangpas assert that the basis and the result are the same. But please keep in mind, these devoid forms are not the same as mental holograms. Like Guhyasamaja, Kalachakra also accepts that the impure mental holograms that arise with our ordinary sensory and mental activity are constituted by our samsaric subtle energy-winds.
In any case, because devoid forms arise automatically from the clear light mind, they can also appear during total absorption on space-like voidness. Therefore, on the generation stage, we imagine ourselves appearing in devoid form aspects during the steps of total absorption on voidness that simulate the death process. Thus, the manner of meditation on the Kalachakra generation stage for building up the causes for the physical body of a Buddha is quite unique.
No Such Thing as a Universal Mind
Is the clear light mind like a universal consciousness or universal mind?
From a Buddhist point of view there is no such thing as a universal mind. It’s not this popular Indian concept that all rivers flow into the ocean and we all become a big ocean in the end, or that we all are in reality one big ocean and individuality is a complete illusion. One of the main reasons for it not being like that is that if, with enlightenment, we all become one big soup, as it were, all mixed together into one big thing, enlightenment, then we no longer have any individual responsibility, either before or after enlightenment. Having the individuality of an individual mental continuum that goes on from one life to the next gives us the sense that we’re always responsible for what we do; we don’t just look forward to joining a soup so that we can escape our individual responsibilities.
Subtle Creative-Energy Drops
Could you say something more about the subtle drops?
The subtle creative-energy drops or subtle seminal drops are one of the features of our subtle body. Our subtle body has subtle energy-channels, subtle energy-nodes or chakras, subtle energy-winds, and subtle creative-energy or seminal-energy drops. There are several types of these subtle drops and they are all parts of our samsaric human rebirths.
We’ve already discussed the four creative-energy drops of the four occasions: awake, dream, deep sleep, and peak experiences of bliss. Located respectively at our forehead, throat, heart and navel chakras, our karmic energy-winds passing through them give rise to the mental holograms of these four occasions, respectively.
Then there is what in the Guhyasamaja system is called the two undissipating creative-energy drops. I don’t know if that terminology also occurs anywhere in the Kalachakra literature, but we find an equivalent presentation. In any case, there is the undissipating creative-energy drop received from our parents at conception. It consists of the combined white bodhichitta drop received from our fathers, carried with his sperm, and red bodhichitta drop from our mothers, carried with her ovum. They are called “bodhichittas” because, based on advanced practices utilizing them, we can gain blissful non-conceptual cognition of deepest bodhichitta, namely voidness, with our clear-light mental activity and attain the aim of conventional bodhichitta, namely enlightenment. This undissipating creative-energy-drop does not dissipate so long as this rebirth lasts and does not refer, then, to the gross substances of a sperm and an ovum.
During the development of the foetus in the womb, small portions of the white and red bodhichitta drops split, with the white one going to the center of the crown chakra and the red to the center of the navel chakra. On the advanced stages of the complete stage of Kalachakra practice, we are able to cause the white and red bodhichitta drops respectively at our crown and navel chakras to “melt,” as it were. From each, come 21,600 drops over the course of the rest of the stages to enlightenment. Different masters assert differently at which stage the process begins. No need to go into detail.
The 21,600 white creative-energy drops fall, one by one, within the central channel from the crown chakra and stack from our navel chakras upwards. Simultaneously, the 21,600 red creative-energy drops are drawn, one by one, up to our crown chakras and stack downwards. These drops remain stacked there in the central channel all the way up to the moment just before our enlightenments. On the basis of each of these pairs of bodhichitta drops, white and red, we experience a moment of what’s called “unchanging blissful awareness.” It is blissful awareness of voidness and it is called “unchanging” or “unmoving” because the white and red creative-energy drops that are their basis do not move, but remain fixed in place within the central channel even after meditation. With each of the 21,600 moments of unchanging blissful awareness of voidness, we burn off one of the 21,600 karmic winds and, through this process, attain enlightenment. With the attainment of enlightenment, the 21,600 white and red creative energy-drops, the creative-energy drops of the four occasions, and the entire subtle energy body disappears, like a rainbow, and in their stead we have the enlightening body of a Buddha in the form of Kalachakra.
The second type of undissipating creative-energy drop is the so-called primordial one, which has no beginning and no end. In the Guhyasamaja system, this is referring to inseparable subtlest energy-wind and clear-light mental activity. At conception, our primordial undissipating creative-energy drop combines at our primitive heart chakra with the undissipating bodhichitta drop received from our parents.
I am not sure if this inseparable pair of subtlest energy-wind and clear-light mental activity is also called the primordial undissipating drop in Kalachakra. But in any case, the Kalachakra system asserts another subtlest creative-energy drop, but one that is inseparable from both subtlest energy-wind and clear light mental activity, as well as from subtlest sound. This subtlest creative-energy drop has traces of the four elements of earth, water, fire and wind, and it also has no beginning and no end. During the course of our samsaric rebirths, the traces of the four elements in this subtlest drop combine with and, in a sense, activate these four elements of the undissipating bodhichitta drop from our parents, so as to give rise to the development of the grosser elements of our samsaric body.
I am not sure what role this subtlest creative-energy drop has when we are enlightened Buddhas. My suspicion is that the inseparable combination of subtlest wind, subtlest sound, clear light mental activity, and subtlest creative energy-drop are responsible, in some way, for our four Buddha-bodies. In that scenario, the subtlest creative-energy drop would be responsible for the Svabhavakaya, the Essential Nature Body, which in Kalachakra is the blissful awareness aspect of our omniscient minds. This would parallel the 21,600 white and red bodhichitta drops being the basis for unchanging blissful awareness of voidness while still on the path. But I need to check this hypothesis further.
The Commitments from the Empowerment
What are the commitments from receiving the Kalachakra empowerment?
In general, the main commitment is to keep the vows we receive during the empowerment – the pratimoksha, bodhichitta and tantric vows. Regarding pratimoksha vows for individual enlightenment, His Holiness will most likely confer the five precepts for laymen and laywomen – not killing, not stealing, not lying, not committing inappropriate sexual behavior, and not taking alcohol or intoxicants. Please bear in mind that it’s not compulsory to take all five of these vows. We can take as many as we feel we are capable of keeping. But please, don’t try to make a deal and get a bargain. If we’re taking a vow, we take the whole vow and everything that’s in it.
For example, some people have problems with all the particulars of the vows to discard inappropriate sexual behavior and alcohol. How to deal with these problems? If we look in the abhidharma texts, we find a presentation of vows, converse vows – the so-called “anti-vows” – and something intermediate that is neither a vow nor a converse vow. An example of a vow is the vow to stop killing. The converse vow would be the vow not to refrain from killing that a soldier would take regarding an enemy in combat, or a worker in a slaughterhouse would take regarding an animal. The intermediate category would be a promise, made with a strong motivation, to do something, either constructive or destructive, and to keep on doing it, while not having a specific vow or converse vow to do it.
So if we are not able to take and keep the full vow regarding sexual behavior or alcohol, we can promise, instead, with a strong motivation, to avoid parts of what we would give up with the full vow. That would be a promise in this intermediate category. For example, instead of vowing to give up all forms of inappropriate sexual behavior, we could promise merely never to commit adultery or rape. Instead of vowing never to drink even a drop of alcohol, we could promise merely never to drink to the point of getting drunk – just one small glass of wine, for example, and only for social or medical reasons. So when a Buddhist master suggests that when taking the lay vows, then regarding alcohol, we can merely promise only to drink in moderation and never to get drunk, please don’t confuse this with the actual lay vow regarding alcohol. It is a strongly motivated promise in this intermediate category that is neither the vow not to drink nor the converse vow to drink. Remember, the main purpose of pratimoksha vows for individual liberation is to set limits on our behavior. They help us gain liberation from samsaric rebirth by limiting our acting on the basis of disturbing emotions. So, if we take a vow, we take the full vow.
In addition to the general commitment to keep the vows, there is the commitment in all anuttarayoga tantra empowerments to keep the nineteen close bonding practices – damtsig in Tibetan, samaya in Sanskrit – for the five Buddha-Families.
In the Gelug tradition, as an aid for keeping these nineteen, we have the Six-Session Yogas. There are the three generic versions of this practice: extremely abbreviated, abbreviated, and extensive, and then there’s also the Kalachakra version. They are very helpful, especially the extensive generic and Kalachakra versions, since in them we recite all the vows we have taken at the empowerment. Reminding ourselves of these vows and the nineteen close bonding practices is a great aid for maintaining our mindfulness of them and actually keeping them. The Kalachakra version also integrates into it the practice of guru-yoga and certain features of the Kalachakra sadhana.
We recite the Six-Session Yoga six times a day, and although there are different ways of making the six, the usual way is to recite it three times in the morning, and three times in the evening. During the second and third repetitions in the morning and evening, we omit certain verses with the extensive generic and Kalachakra versions.
Also, the six repetitions can be made up of any combination of any of the four versions of the practice, although it is strongly recommended that we do the extremely abbreviated four-line version only in emergencies, like when we’re extremely sick. And, if we’ve received an anuttarayoga tantra empowerment before and are already doing this six-session practice every day, we don’t need to add another set of six recitations. Six times is enough for all the anuttarayoga empowerments we receive.
Some people, because the Kalachakra one is quite long, might decide to do the Kalachakra one only on weekends, but during workdays to do some combination of the generic ones. That’s fine. And of course it doesn’t hurt to recite the Kalachakra mantra while visualizing ourselves in the form of the principal Kalachakra couple, but there’s no commitment to that. If we do the Kalachakra version of the Six-Session Yoga, recitation of the mantra is included there.
[See: Extensive Six-Session Yoga, as well as Commentary on "An Extensive Six-Session Yoga" – Dr. Berzin. See also: Kalachakra Six-Session Guru-Yoga]
In tantra, when we visualize the multiple deities in a mandala, and multiple deities within the deities, is the object to get to a point at which we’re able to have this panoramic visualization of all the deities simultaneously?
Yes, we eventually need to be able to visualize all the deities in the mandala simultaneously. Not only that, but we also need to maintain the so-called “divine pride” of labeling “me” on all the deities, plus on the mandala palace as well. We’re all of that. We’re not just the principal deity Kalachakra, but we’re the couple, Kalachakra and Vishvamata. And not just the couple, we’re all 722 figures in and around the palace; and we’re not just these deities, we’re the palace as well.
Of course, we can’t visualize all of this simultaneously in all its detail from the start. Tsongkhapa explains that we need to have a general vague mental image of the entire visualization first, and then fill in the details, one by one, starting with the third eye of the central face of the principal deity. So there are stages of how we perfect our visualization skills. But eventually we’re able to get the whole thing going in our visualization, not only simultaneously, but instantaneously as well, with all of it in focus and we are all of it.
That’s important to remember that we’re all of the figures, otherwise ladies sometimes get confused and wonder if they should visualize themselves as Vishvamata, but then they would be facing backwards while embracing Kalachakra. No, we are all of them. “Me” is labeled on the whole thing, and that is not so impossible when we think about it. That’s because we have all our limbs, we have our nervous system, we have our circulation system, our digestive system – we have all of that. We’re not just our nose or something like that; we’re the whole thing. And the mandala palace is like having skin that contains all our bodily systems.
So this visualization is a substitute, an alternative Kalachakra, for all of that. All those figures represent specific things on three levels – external, internal and alternative. That’s what’s so significant here, not just being able to visualize all of this – that’s a big accomplishment, true, but that’s not the aim. The aim is to be aware of what all these figures represent on the external and internal Kalachakra levels and what they represent on the alternative level as a substitute in order to purify those two.
Let’s take an example. Externally there are ten heavenly bodies in Kalachakra astronomy that rotate around Mount Meru, and internally there are ten types of subtle energy-winds that course around the subtle body. Representing the purification of these two groups of ten, we have the ten powerful ladies, the shaktis, in the mandala – eight around the central couple and two dissolved into Vishvamata. They represent the ten far-reaching attitudes, the so-called “ten perfections.” It’s difficult to keep all these groups of ten in our minds simultaneously, but it becomes a little bit easier when we represent them graphically with these ten female figures. What color each of the ten is and what each is holding is secondary; more important is what each of them represents on all the various levels. We need to keep all of that in our minds, simultaneously.
So, when we commit ourselves to a tantric practice that we’re going to practice every day for the rest of our life, we shouldn’t think, “Oh, this is going to be really boring,” or “This is too difficult, I’ll never be able to do it.” We need to rejoice that we will get to do the practice every day for the rest of our life, because it will take that long to make significant progress.
It’s tough going, there’s no denying that, but it is all laid out in stages of how to do it. We don’t start with the most complex level to begin with; but slowly, slowly, with sustained effort, we will make progress over the years. But remember, samsara goes up and down, and so will our meditation practice. Some days, it goes better and some days worse. Progress is never linear. But the most important thing is to sustain our effort, no matter what. His Holiness emphasizes this very much – sustained practice on the basis of knowing what we are doing, being properly motivated, and having a realistic attitude. Without these, what are we doing with our tantric practice? It’s just what I call making a daily trip to Buddhist Disneyland! That’s not what we want, to go to Buddhist Disneyland and now we’re this figure and that figure, and we’re marching off to Fantasyland. It’s not like that. Tantric practice should not be an entertaining distraction where we go into this Fantasyland, but rather it needs to be something we use as a method for what’s it’s intended for: to help us overcome problems and suffering and reach the enlightened state of a Buddha so that we can be of best help to others.
So, even if we just do Kalachakra practice on a simple level for overcoming the self-image we might have of being a loser and nobody loves me, this is beneficial. We realize, with great relief and joy, that such a negative self-image does not correspond to anything real. Nobody exists like that. We realize that we have all the Buddha-nature potentials and that “I can do better.” So, after dissolving this negative self-image with our focus on its voidness, we imagine ourselves instead in the form of this Kalachakra cluster of deities. Because some of these deities represent all the days of the year and the various astrological configuration, we get the divine pride that “I can handle anything that comes up.”
This is what I find on a practical level has been the most useful thing specific to my own Kalachakra practice. You know, I deal with very, very complex things with my website. It’s now in nine languages and we’re actively preparing four more, so I’m dealing with thirteen languages, plus Tibetan and Sanskrit, and I’m supervising the eighty or so people who work on the project, plus preparing more English material myself. So, on a day-to-day basis, I’m dealing with a huge amount of stuff that I’m involved with and, with the Kalachakra self-image, it’s no problem. “One more language section? No problem. It’s just another group of deities over there in that corner of the third level of the mandala palace. Of course I can handle it, bring on even more! I can handle any level of complexity, it’s no problem.”
So Kalachakra practice is very, very useful, especially when we lead very complex lives in which we have to deal with many, many things. With our Kalachakra self-image, we keep on reminding ourselves: “I can do better! I can handle all of this. No problem, just another group of deities over there. Bring them on! No big deal, nothing special.”
Thank you very much.