Mahamudra: General Presentation of Preliminaries

The Source of the Teachings

Today many people have come, both Western and Tibetan, both laypersons and monastics, to listen to an explanation of mahamudra, the great seal of reality. For many of us, just hearing this word, "mahamudra," causes our ears to perk up. We think that through mahamudra we can instantly become a Buddha. But, in fact, it takes much time and effort to meditate on and actualize mahamudra. We must approach the topic realistically.

The mahamudra teachings derive from India, ultimately from Shakyamuni Buddha himself, and contain both sutra and tantra presentations. They include all points for reaching enlightenment. In Tibet, the most well-known mahamudra traditions are those of the various Kagyu lineages. What we shall be discussing during these next few days, however, will be the mahamudra tradition that traces from the great Tsongkhapa.

Some people say that since this particular lineage of mahamudra derives from Tsongkhapa, the title of the root text need only have referred to it as the Gelug tradition of mahamudra, not the Gelug-Kagyu tradition. But the author, the Fourth Panchen Lama, has clearly explained the reason for his choice of titles. The mahamudra lineage derives from India through the line of Tilopa and Naropa, and was transmitted to Tibet by the great translator, Marpa. This lineage of masters that forms the backbone of the Kagyu traditions also transmitted to Tibet The Guhyasamaja Tantra. When we add to the presentation of Guhyasamaja coming from this Kagyu lineage the explanation of the lineage of the correct view of reality transmitted through Tsongkhapa, we arrive at the combined Gelug-Kagyu tradition of mahamudra.

If we ask more specifically about the lineage of this mahamudra tradition, there is a distant one that derives from the universal teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni, and traces down through the lineage masters of the profound correct view of reality. Alongside this, and as part of it, is the lineage of inspiration from the practice of the correct view. Combined with these lineages is an uncommon near lineage deriving from the Buddha-figure, or "deity," Manjushri, bestowed on Tsongkhapa in a pure vision due to his purification of karma and transmitted to his close disciple, Togden Jampel Gyatso. From him, the lineage passed to the great Baso Chokyi Gyaltsen and then on to the Three Dorje Brothers, his three uncommonly close heart disciples. From among them, the great mahasiddha Dharmavajra, known in Tibetan as Chokyi Dorje, who reached the supreme actual attainment of enlightenment during his lifetime, passed it down to Ensapa. He transmitted it, in turn, to Sanggye Yeshe, who passed it to the Fourth Panchen Lama, Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen.

Tsongkhapa is commonly and widely known for his teachings on voidness meditation that he gave according to his tradition of explanation of the correct view of reality that follows the prasangika-madhyamaka position. He presents this manner of voidness explanation in various texts from his collected works, such as A Grand and A Short Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, An Ocean of Reason Commentary on Nagarjuna's "Root Verses on the Middle Way", Illuminating the Intent: An Explanation of (Chandrakirti’s) “Engaging in the Middle Way” and The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings. Tsongkhapa also gave a restricted discourse on mahamudra to special disciples such as Gungru Gyaltsen Zangpo. Although Gungru took notes on it, they remained unpublicized.

The widely known and famous Gelug-Kagyu mahamudra tradition derives from this complex of lineages through the Fourth Panchen Lama. He wrote A Root Text for the Precious Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra: The Main Road of the Triumphant Ones and likewise an autocommentary to it, An Extensive Explanation of "A Root Text for the Gelug-Kagyu Lineage of Mahamudra": A Lamp for Further Illumination. The lineage passes down from the Fourth Panchen Lama through many great lamas. I received it from my root guru, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. The lineage of teachings that I received on this from him included a practice-oriented discourse based on the root text and an explanation-oriented discourse based on the autocommentary. On this occasion, I shall explain the topic as presented in the autocommentary, covering the essence of the text without giving a line-by-line, word-for-word explication.

The Gelug-Kagyu tradition of mahamudra includes both sutra and tantra levels of explanation. The sutra level contains the more extensive explanation of the actual ways to meditate on a correct view of voidness. To receive the tantra level requires receiving an empowerment, or "initiation" into the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga. The normal sequence, if we had time, would be, after conferring empowerment, to deliver a discourse explaining the Fourth Panchen Lama's A Ritual to Honor the Spiritual Master. This would provide the context for the requests for inspiration to the gurus of the mahamudra lineage that we recite before each day's first session. After this, we would explain this text. On this occasion, however, we must abbreviate this procedure.

Special Features of the Teachings

If we explain in terms of the madhyamaka tradition of a correct view of reality, the usual method for gaining correct understanding is to realize the voidness of a person – a conventional "me." For this, we analyze the mode of existence of a person in terms of five aggregate factors of experience as the basis for labeling one – namely, the forms of physical phenomena, feelings of a level of happiness or suffering, distinguishing, other affecting variables, and types of consciousness experienced by or connected with the person. In the mahamudra tradition, however, although we still take as the basis for labeling a person the five aggregates, we focus primarily on the aggregate of consciousness as serving this function. Thus the mahamudra tradition presents a correct view of reality in terms of the voidness of the mind. The Guhyasamaja literature, particularly concerning the five stages of its complete stage – body isolation, speech isolation, illusory body attained subsequent to mind isolation, clear light, and the unified pair of illusory body and clear light – also stresses the importance of gaining a correct view of voidness in terms of understanding the voidness of mind.

Many other traditions make a similar assertion. The Nyingma, or old translation school of Tibet explains the meditation method of dzogchen, the great completeness. Among the Sarma, or new translation schools, Sakya transmits the meditation method of the view of clarity and voidness not apprehended apart, also known as the causal everlasting continuum of the alaya, the all-encompassing foundation, and the inseparability of samsara and nirvana. Likewise among these Sarma schools, Kagyu transmits various lineages of mahamudra. All these meditation traditions are based on the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, and all come to an understanding of a correct view of voidness presented in terms of the voidness of mind. As the Fourth Panchen Lama asserts in our root text, they all come to the same intended point.

Setting the Appropriate Motivation

It is very important before receiving any Dharma teaching to set a proper motivation, or reaffirm and enhance that motivation if we already basically have it. This is important not only for those who are listening to a spiritual discourse, but also for the person delivering it. If a discourse or explanation is given with an attitude of pride, competitiveness or jealousy, it will not do as a Dharma teaching. A Buddhist teaching must be given with the sincere wish to benefit all beings by means of it.

Likewise, the listeners to a Buddhist teaching must have a proper motivation, always thinking, "What new point can I learn from this that will help me be of more benefit to others?" If we sit here with the notion to learn something about mahamudra so that we can make a display of ourselves and proudly talk to others about mahamudra so that they will consider us an erudite, spiritual person, we have a completely wrong motivation. Rather, we need to listen, thinking, "My mind-stream is filled with disturbing emotions and attitudes, causing me personal problems and preventing me from being of any help to others. It must be purified. I need the most profound and perfect method to do this, and mahamudra is indeed the most profound method. Therefore I shall listen to these teachings with the motivation to be able to learn from them as much as possible in order to be able to reach a state at which I can most effectively benefit all beings." Thus, as I explain this teaching, I shall try to do so using examples that are easily understandable and relevant to all of us. Likewise, you should listen relating what I explain to your own experience.

Homage and Praise to the Gurus

The Fourth Panchen Lama provides an outline to his autocommentary. He divides it into (1) a preliminary discussion, in which he explains the excellent features of the various texts and sources from which this material derives, (2) the actual explanation of these constructive teachings, and (3) the dedication of the positive force, or "merit" from having explained them.

Although there are many noble objects to which the traditional salutary praise can be made at the opening of a text, here the author offers homage and praise to the guru. Since the text includes a discussion of the methods for generating a correct view of reality through anuttarayoga tantra methods, the guru is especially important. This is because, in tantra, we receive, during empowerments conferred by a guru, the various seeds of potential on our mind-stream that allow us to gain meditation experiences and stable realizations into the practices.

Buddhism presents three sources of safe direction or refuge – the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha. There are no true sources of safe, sound and positive direction in life that cannot be included in these three. We can present the Dharma refuge as the preventive measures or teachings that the Buddha realized and imparted to others. But by merely reading a Dharma text, we cannot gain on our mind-stream the definitive Dharma refuge – a true stopping or cessation of our suffering and their causes, and a true pathway mind or realization of all good qualities by means of the Dharma methods. A definitive Dharma refuge can only arise on our mind-stream from these methods if we receive the inspiration from our gurus that has come down through the unbroken lineage of masters from Shakyamuni Buddha himself. The uplifting of our mind-stream by being conjoined with such inspiration causes the seeds of potential planted there from our practice of Dharma methods to ripen into the deep experience of their realization. Therefore the author offers prostration and praise at the beginning of his text to the guru.

What are the good qualities of a guru? In general, there are the positive qualities of body, speech and mind, and here the most important are the qualities of speech. Thus the Fourth Panchen Lama offers prostration and praise to the guru for his or her speech that expounds the methods of mahamudra based on personal experience. What is mahamudra? It is something having three levels of significance – basis, pathway and resultant. Both the sutra and anuttarayoga presentations of mahamudra entail these three levels.

In the sutra system, basis mahamudra is, as the first line of the root text indicates, "the all-pervasive nature of everything, the great seal of reality." This refers to the devoid nature of all things of samsara or nirvana – the total absence of their existing in any fantasized, impossible manner. This devoid nature pertains to everything, impure or pure, that either an unaware, samsaric mind or a nirvanic one that is purified of unawareness respectively gives rise to – including, in either case, both what can be affected by other phenomena and what cannot, in other words both "conditioned" and "unconditioned" phenomena. Nothing exceeds or goes beyond the bounds of this set.

First we listen to or read an explanation of this basis level mahamudra, which is the devoid nature of all things, and gain an understanding of it based on listening. Then we ponder or think about the meaning of this and slowly gain a presumptive understanding of voidness. The deep awareness that is the nonconceptual, straightforward perception of voidness gained by meditating on this presumptive understanding is undoubtedly the pathway level mahamudra. The resultant Jnana Dharmakaya, a Buddha's body of deep awareness, encompassing everything and endowed with all positive qualities, that we attain as the ultimate endpoint of familiarizing ourselves with the deep awareness that is the nonconceptual, straightforward perception of voidness, is the resultant level mahamudra.

In the anuttarayoga tantra system, we can also say that voidness as an object is the basis mahamudra, but we have a further explanation as well. All impure or pure phenomena, both external and internal, are rooted in the mind and energy-winds. Of the various levels of subtlety of mind and energy-winds, they are specifically rooted in the subtlest levels of both. Thus several masters assert basis mahamudra to be the subtlest level of mind and energy-wind that are the basis for all appearance-making and appearances of samsara or nirvana. More specifically, they assert basis mahamudra to be the mother clear light primordial mind, in other words the subtlest level of mind that manifests once the three unconscious, most subtle, conceptual appearance-making minds have ceased. These are the appearance-congealment, light-diffusion and threshold conceptual minds, often translated as "white appearance," "red increase" and "black near-attainment." The mother clear light primordial mind, as the source of all impure or pure appearance-making of samsara or nirvana is the basis level mahamudra according to anuttarayoga tantra.The karmamudra physical partner, as the seal of behavior, who can act as a circumstance or basis for bringing about the realization of this basis mahamudra on the anuttarayoga path is the pathway mahamudra in this context.

Resultant mahamudra is the resulting state of the five types of deep awareness, or "Buddha-wisdoms," as the foundation for everything, and that possesses the seven facets endowing enlightenment. The five types of deep awareness of a Buddha are the mirror-like awareness to know the extent of everyone and everything that exists, the awareness of the equality of everyone as objects of compassion and everything as devoid in nature, the awareness of the individuality of everyone and everything, the awareness of how to accomplish the temporary and ultimate aims of everyone, and the awareness of the sphere of reality – the two truths about everyone and everything. The seven facets endowing enlightenment are features of Sambhogakaya, the body of forms with full use that we attain as a Buddha. These facets are having full use of the mahayana teachings, being always in union, with blissful awareness, full compassion, deep awareness of voidness, never passing away and manifesting a body of emanations, or Nirmanakaya, without any break. We attain both with Buddhahood on the basis of relying on the pathway mahamudra.

Thus all the various points of the mahamudra teachings can be included within the categories of basis, pathway and resultant mahamudras presented in the sutra and anuttarayoga tantra systems. Thus we need to know and gain a decisive understanding of basis mahamudra. We then need to meditate single-pointedly on pathway mahamudra. By relying on that as a cause, we finally attain resultant mahamudra. The author offers homage and praise to the guru who expounds all this, making every point clear.

Promise to Compose and General Presentation of the Preliminaries

In his promise to compose, the Fourth Panchen Lama states that he will gather together the essence of the subject matter discussed in the sutras and tantras, and, condensing oceans of guideline instructions concerning mahamudra, will write the text that follows. He then divides the actual body of the text into discussions of the preparations, actual methods and concluding procedures. What are the preparations? In general, there are nine, eight or four preliminaries that lead us forward on the path. The nine forward-leading preliminaries are taking the safe direction of refuge and dedicating our heart with bodhichitta, making prostration, offering a mandala, reciting the hundred-syllable Vajrasattva mantra, performing guru-yoga, making offerings to Vajradaka into a fire, reciting the Samayavajra mantra, offering water bowls and making tsatsa, clay votive tablets. When we list eight preliminaries, we count the first two from this list as one and perform them at the same time. Here we have a presentation of four preliminary practices.

As the gateway for entering the Buddhist teachings in general is putting the safe direction in our life of taking refuge, we need to take safe direction very purely. Likewise, as the gateway for entering the mahayana path is developing a dedicated heart of bodhichitta – a heart that is dedicated to attaining enlightenment in order to benefit all beings – we need that as well. Since taking safe direction leads us on to dedicating our heart with bodhichitta, taking safe direction is the first forward-leading preliminary practice. Second is making mandala offerings, a preliminary practice that leads us forward through its strengthening our enlightenment-building network of positive force. Meditating on and reciting the mantra of Vajrasattva is the third preliminary. It leads us forward through its purification of our negative force and mental blocks. Finally, we have the preliminary practice of guru-yoga which leads us forward by bringing inspiration to our mind-stream. These are the four preliminaries that prepare us for advancing to the main practice.

Safe Direction and the Four True Facts in Life

We can include into the first of these preliminaries – safe direction and bodhichitta – all the points of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path to enlightenment, and lojong, the methods for cleansing our attitudes or "training our mind." The way in which we do this is to include all the teachings of the initial and intermediate scopes of spiritual motivation under the topic of safe direction and all those concerning the advanced scope under the topic of bodhichitta. The initial spiritual motivation is to seek better rebirth because of dread of experiencing a worse one, the intermediate one is to strive for liberation from samsara because of total disgust with the problems of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, while the advanced motivation is to work to become a Buddha in order to benefit all suffering beings.

We cannot consider the actual preliminary practice of taking safe direction to be the mere repetition of the formula, "I take safe direction from the Buddhas, I take safe direction from the Dharma, I take safe direction from the Sangha," that comes only from the mouth, without any feeling. Otherwise, as our preliminary practice, we could play a tape recording of our voice repeating the refuge formula endlessly, "blah, blah, blah." But this would bring us no benefit. We must have sincere feeling behind our repetition of the refuge formula, and we can only develop this if we have some understanding of the three sources of safe direction. We must understand what are the Three Jewels of Refuge – the Buddhas, the Dharma and the Sangha.

In the expanded refuge formula, we refer to the Buddhas as the "foremost of all those with two legs" – in other words, the foremost of all humans. This is just a manner of expression, otherwise we could also speak of a Buddha as the best of all four-legged beings and the best of all hundred-legged beings as well! The main factor that establishes a Buddha, such as Shakyamuni, as the foremost of all humans is that he has explained the universal truths that he recognized, having been requested always to impart them by those who would follow in his footsteps. This indicates that above, the Buddhas who indicate the safe direction are very precious, and below, the Sangha or community of helpful friends who actualize their teachings exactly as they should be are also very precious. But the main factor that renders them both precious is the Dharma itself, the preventive measures that the one teaches and the other realizes.

The Dharma is indeed that which brings benefit. It is really something excellent. The more we understand and realize the Dharma ourselves, the more strongly we see that the Buddhas who realized it fully and taught it widely are a true source of safe direction in life. We see that not only are the Buddhas totally suitable for providing a safe direction in life, but the Sangha community of helpful friends who are realizing what the Buddhas have taught are also suitable for providing us safe direction. All Three Precious Gems are valid sources of safe direction, and foremost among them is the precious Dharma. Therefore we must gain certainty in what actually constitutes the pure Dharma.

In the expanded refuge formula, the Dharma is called "that which frees and is free from attachment." We can understand this from the explanation given in Maitreya's The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, a hidden treasure text discovered and revealed in India by Maitripa at about the same time the first treasure texts of the Nyingma and Bon tradition were found in Tibet and Bhutan. In this fundamental text, Maitreya presents the Dharma, or preventive measures, as freedoms from attachment and that which free us from attachment. All suffering and problems, as the first true fact in life, or "noble truth," have, as their root, longing desire or attachment, an example of the second true fact. What actually frees us from this attachment is the fourth true fact, true pathways of mind. The actual separations or freedoms from attachment achieved through them are the third true fact, true stoppings or "cessations." These four true facts in life constitute two sets related by cause and effect – one on the side of total delusion and the other on the side of total purification. The causal and resultant facts on the side of total delusion are the first two facts, while the causal and resultant ones on the side of total purification are the second two. In terms of the four true facts in life, the Dharma encompasses the side of total purification "which frees and is free from" the side of total delusion.

To understand the Dharma fully, then, we need to understand the four facts seen as true by all aryas, or highly realized beings, "noble ones" – namely the Sangha. Thus if we have not molded our mind with the teachings of the initial and intermediate scopes of spiritual motivation, which cover the subject matter of the four true facts, we are unable to put a safe direction in our life properly. Therefore we say that all the teachings of these first two levels of motivation must be included in taking a safe direction of refuge.

The Wish for Happiness

We all want happiness and do not wish for any suffering, don't we? That wish naturally arises in everyone. Happiness is something perfectly appropriate to wish to have, while suffering and unhappiness are totally fitting to wish not to have. But what is it that can bring the happiness we wish for and the avoidance or removal of the unhappiness that we wish not to have? We soon realize that our wish by itself is unable to bring them about. No matter how strong our wish grows – no matter how much we wish to be happy – our wish and desire still do not make us happy. In fact, when our wish does not come true, we become frustrated and angry. Thus our wish for happiness brings us nothing but unhappiness!

What is the root of this dilemma? If we examine the situation, we discover that the source of the problem is our craving and attachment. Since the basis for our wish to be happy is longing desire, craving and attachment, when our wish is frustrated even to the slightest degree, we become disappointed, frustrated, upset and angry. And even if we gain a little bit of happiness, nevertheless because of our underlying longing desire and attachment, we gain no satisfaction, only further unhappiness because of discontent. It seems, then, that the wish for happiness in the minds of almost all of us has arisen by the force of selfish craving for our own self-interest. This is because, although such wishes have brought us the material progress of the twentieth century, they have certainly not brought us satisfaction or peace of mind.

The happiness that we wish for is something that by itself is perfectly all right. But we must differentiate two distinct manners of wishing for or desiring it. One involves reliance on causality, while the other does not. The manner of wishing with which we rely on the actual process of cause and effect is one that brings a fulfillment that is not the opposite of what we desire. This is because it leads us to a perfectly appropriate pathway of action that can and does fulfill its wish. The manner of wishing with which we do not rely on the actual process of cause and effect, on the other hand, is doomed to failure.

For example, we might wish for a particular material object that we hope will make us happy. If we go about obtaining the object of our desire through a destructive and harmful manner of behavior, for instance by stealing it, we may well procure the object and gain a small amount of immediate pleasure and satisfaction from it. Nevertheless, the manner through which we tried to fulfill the aim of our desire for happiness was not one that was based on a proper understanding of cause and effect. Stealing, or any other mode of destructive behavior that harms others, can never be a cause for stable happiness. Rather, it inevitably causes the opposite of the happiness we wish for, namely unhappiness and suffering that we experience in the future.

On the other hand, if we go about obtaining that same object through methods that are beneficial to ourselves and others, or that at least do no harm to others, such as by earning the money to buy it through honest work, then we are basing our method for fulfilling our wish on a proper understanding of cause and effect. We are able to experience a more lasting happiness from obtaining the object, and our manner of obtaining it does not act as a cause for experiencing unhappiness – the exact opposite of what we want.

Furthermore, we can wish for happiness and no suffering just temporarily for a particular occasion, or deeply and permanently. The main point, in terms of cause and effect, for obtaining happiness and no suffering on a temporary basis is to use means that do not harm others. Such means are totally appropriate for bringing about what we wish. But, if we wish to obtain happiness and eliminate problems on the deepest level, forever, we must consider another factor.

There are two types of mind upon which we could rely in our quest to obtain everlasting happiness and the total elimination of suffering. One is a mind that apprehends everything as existing truly and inherently. If we act on the basis of such a mind, we come under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes, such as attachment, anger or confusion, which can only cause us problems and unhappiness in the long-term. Nothing we do with a mind apprehending things as truly and inherently existing can act as a pure cause for everlasting happiness and total liberation from suffering. If, on the other hand, we use a mind that is the exact opposite of this, in other words one that apprehends things as being devoid of existing truly and inherently, we are relying on a proper understanding of cause and effect, and thus can achieve our goal.

The totally deluded side of the four true facts in life entails attachment, anger and confusion as the true causes that bring about true problems and suffering. If we wish to rid ourselves of these forever, we need to rely on mental states that can oppose these three poisonous, disturbing emotions and attitudes that bring us unhappiness and problems. The opposite states of mind to these true causes of our problems are the constructive emotions and attitudes of a total lack of attachment, anger and confusion. These we can attain only on the basis of a realization of the total absence of fantasized, impossible ways of existing, such as true and inherent existence. If we take these constructive emotions and attitudes as true pathways of mind, from the totally purifying side of the four true facts in life, they eliminate the problems and suffering brought on by our attachment and so on. In other words, they bring about true stoppings of these, and lead us to a true and everlasting happiness.

To develop on our mind-stream the Dharma, or preventive measures that can eliminate our problems and bring us triumph over our fears, we need to rely on the Buddha who imparted these measures and on the Sangha as helpful friends who are correctly realizing them. In other words, we need to develop on our mind-stream the realized preventive measures that are the Dharma refuge by relying on the Buddha refuge and the Sangha refuge as contributing circumstances. Thus, to eliminate the suffering that we do not wish, we need to take safe direction from the Precious Gems of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We then put this safe direction in our life on the basis of relying on cause and effect to remove our problems.

In order to make a more vivid impression on our mind, then, in connection with tantra practice, we visualize or imagine the objects of refuge, or sources of safe direction, before us when we wish to reaffirm our taking of direction from them. We can visualize them in the form, for example, of the tree of assembled gurus from A Ritual to Honor the Spiritual Master as our bountiful field for growing an enlightenment-building network of positive force. Focusing on this visualization, we take safe direction and purify ourselves of negative force and mental obstacles. This is the preliminary practice of taking safe direction that leads us forward. Furthermore, we put this safe direction in our life and continually reaffirm it on the basis of dread and confidence. These are the dread with which we do not wish to experience any suffering or unhappiness, and the confident belief that the Three Jewels of Refuge have the power and ability to allow us to fulfill this aim.


For developing a dedicated heart of bodhichitta, or reaffirming it, we visualize sitting around us all motherly beings in the form of humans, and then follow the various methods we learn in lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. For instance, we apply the seven-part cause and effect method – on the basis of developing equanimity toward all beings – namely, recognizing everyone as having been our mother, remembering the kindness of motherly love, wishing to repay that kindness, developing the love with which we wish others to be happy, compassion for them to be free of their problems, exceptional resolve to bring this about, and dedicating our heart with bodhichitta to achieving that goal by becoming a Buddha. Alternatively, we follow the methods outlined by Shantideva in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior for equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others.

In either case, we consider how all motherly beings around us wish to have ultimate happiness and ultimate separation from all their suffering and problems. Firmly deciding to take responsibility to bring this about for them, we realize that the only way we shall be able to help them fulfill their wishes is by eliminating all our shortcomings and realizing all our potentials – in other words, by becoming a Buddha ourselves. In this way, we develop strong resolve, from the depths of our heart, to achieve enlightenment for their sake. This is the way we develop and reaffirm our dedicated heart of bodhichitta.

After we have meditated in this way on taking safe direction and dedicating our heart with bodhichitta, we visualize a replica coming from the field for positive force, our objects of safe direction, and dissolving into us. We imagine, thereby, that we transform into a Buddha Shakyamuni. This is called "taking as a pathway the result of dedicating our heart with bodhichitta."

Mandala Offering

Next, for strengthening our enlightenment-building positive force, we offer a mandala, a round symbol of the universe.

Our intention here is to bring to mind as many splendid objects as possible, both those that we own and those not belonging to us or in the public domain. We then let pour out, from the depths of our heart, our admiration, respect and fervent regard for the objects of safe direction. If, motivated by this fervent regard, we then offer an external object that represents these splendid objects we have brought to mind, we build up positive force proportionate to the strength of our fervent regard. Moreover, if we think on a very vast scale, and bring to mind and offer the thousand, million, billion world systems that have arisen as the comprehensive result of collective karma, we reap proportionate benefit.

In short, since the main thing we need, in this context, for building up positive force and strengthening our resolve, is to bring to mind and offer the most splendid environment and beings within it that we can, we offer a mandala to accomplish that aim. Mandala-offering, then, is not an exercise in creating a map with Mount Meru in the center and arranging the four continent-worlds around its perimeter!

Vajrasattva Practice

Next, for openly admitting to our previously committed mistaken actions and purifying ourselves of their negative force, we practice meditation and mantra-recitation of Vajrasattva. There are several ways in which we can visualize this, with either ourselves generated as Vajrasattva or merely with Vajrasattva on the crown of our head. In any case, while visualizing Vajrasattva in one of these manners, we recite his hundred-syllable mantra.

There are many Buddha-figures, or yidams, and each has his or her own special features. For example, Tsongkhapa, as the Buddha-figure called "The Spiritual Leader of the Three Buddha Family-Traits," represents the combination of compassion, discriminating awareness and enlightening abilities – three Buddha family-traits, or aspects of Buddha-nature. Meditation practice of this Buddha-figure, with recitation of the appropriate mantra, is a method to bond ourselves closely with and develop these qualities of enlightenment. Thus different Buddha-figures, such as Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava, Chakrasamvara, Hayagriva, Vajrakilaya and so forth, each have their close-bonding practice – their samaya, usually translated as "commitment." Likewise, Vajrasattva is the Buddha-figure to bond us closely with and help us attain the aspect of enlightenment that is the total purification of all negative force and mental obstacles – in other words, the true stoppings associated with the omniscient mind of a Buddha, or, from another point of view, their total absence or voidness. This is the reason why we visualize and invoke Vajrasattva for this practice of purification.

For openly admitting and purifying ourselves, we can also make prostrations while reciting the The Admission of Downfalls. With either this practice or that of Vajrasattva, however, we accompany our open admission with the four opponent forces of sincere regret, the promise not to repeat these negativities, reaffirmation of our safe direction and dedicated heart as our joint foundation, and application of remedial measures. The more complete these four opponent forces, the greater our purification is from negative force. Signs that we repeatedly receive in dreams indicate the extent of our purification. For example, frequently recurring dreams of washing ourselves, or of various impure substances leaving our body such as pus, blood, excrement, even insects or snakes, or of drinking milk or emanating light from our body, are signs of having purified ourselves.


Next, as a portal for inspiration to cascade upon us, we practice guru-yoga. In general, in order to gain realization and actualize any constructive pathways of mind, we need the strong inspiration on our mind-stream that can only come from our spiritual teacher, our guru. And, particularly here, the guru's inspiration is especially important for gaining realization of mahamudra. I know several Kagyu and dzogchen practitioners who have attested to this from their personal experience. They had received discourses on mahamudra or dzogchen from their gurus and had everything assembled to enable them to meditate. But only when they had brought to consciousness their extraordinary respect and incomparable faith in their guru was their mind exhilarated and stimulated enough so that they were able to see, in that state, the nature of their mind. They told me that their fervent regard for their guru brought to their practice very special experiences and strong conviction. Thus, we can conclude that for gaining realization of constructive states of mind in general, and especially for gaining special realizations on our mind-stream in connection with practice of anuttarayoga tantra, it is definite that we need special inspiration from our gurus to fill our mind-stream. Guru-yoga is explained as the portal for that inspiration to cascade upon us.

The Qualifications of a Guru

As for the guru, not just anyone will do. It should not be someone who merely has the name "Lama" or "Rinpoche,"or someone who simply explains the Dharma. We must examine someone very thoroughly to see if he or she has all the qualifications of a spiritual master according to the vinaya rules of discipline, according to the sutras, according to the lower classes of tantra, and all the qualifications according to the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga. We should not be in a hurry when we examine a potential guru, but examine slowly and carefully over many months and years. And if this person does not have all the full qualifications complete, he or she must at least have the principal ones. Only on these as a minimum basis, can we identify and accept this teacher as our guru.

In general, the qualifications of a proper guru according to the vinaya are, first of all, that he or she must be someone who keeps one of the classes of vows for individual liberation – one of the sets of pratimoksha vows. A guru who is a householder must keep the five vows of a lay person correctly and impeccably – namely, to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior and taking alcohol or other intoxicants. One who is a monastic must follow the complete rules of discipline of either a novice or fully ordained monk or nun, depending on the gender of the guru. The most important qualification from this presentation, in addition to having pure ethical self-discipline, is having a heart that sincerely wishes to benefit others.

According to sutra, there are ten qualifications of a guru. He or she must have a mind that is well tamed by higher training in ethical self-discipline, stilled of flightiness of mind and mental dullness through higher training in concentration, and totally stilled of disturbing emotions and attitudes through higher training in discriminating awareness, or "wisdom." Moreover, a guru must have thorough knowledge of the scriptures and deep realization of their meaning through extensive meditation experience. Furthermore, a guru must have no motivation other than the pure concern of wishing to benefit his or her disciples. If we wish to summarize the qualities of a sutra guru, particularly a mahayana guru, we would say that he or she must have more concern for future lives than this life, as demonstrated by scrupulous regard for behavioral cause and effect – otherwise, that teacher has not even entered the sphere of being a spiritual person in the Buddhist sense – and more concern for others than self.

A guru of the lower classes of tantra, in addition to the above qualifications, must have the ability to actualize the mandalas, the symbolic universes of the Buddha-figures of those classes and confer the appropriate empowerments, be skilled in all the rituals of these classes, and so forth. A guru of anuttarayoga tantra must also have the realizations of the generation and complete stages of its practice, having done all the full meditation retreats, be skilled in the various ritual procedures of this class, be able to lead disciples on its pathways of practice, and so forth.

Often it is difficult to know the qualities of a potential guru. We might think that we need the advanced awareness of extrasensory perception. But in fact, unless we are an omniscient Buddha, we can never know all the qualities of another person in full detail. A scriptural quotation gives an analogy for dealing with this dilemma, "Just as we cannot see a fish swimming in the depths of the ocean, but we can sense its presence from ripples on the water's surface..." Thus, although we might not be able to be aware of all the deep qualities of a potential guru, nevertheless we can see the qualities that appear on the surface, like the ripples that appear from a fish beneath the water. We therefore look to the person's general behavior, his or her general mode of conduct, to give us an indication. Thus we follow the same procedure as we would for recognizing a bodhisattva. Likewise we can examine our dreams since sometimes signs of a karmic connection with this person appear in them.

In general it is not necessary to identify and accept someone as our guru before we listen to a discourse from him or her explaining the Dharma. We could listen to it simply in the manner of going to a lecture, without identifying the person delivering it as our guru and ourselves as his or her disciple. As we have not yet really examined this teacher, if we simply leave it on the level of merely listening to a lecture, we are on more stable, safer ground. It is appropriate to identify a spiritual teacher as our guru and establish a guru-disciple relationship only if we have let a long time pass during which we have examined this person very thoroughly, while attending his or her lectures, and then found the person to be properly and suitably qualified. Receiving a tantric empowerment from someone, however, in which we must examine the person very thoroughly before, not after, receiving the empowerment, is much more difficult. But for merely receiving explanatory discourses on Dharma from a teacher, the above procedure is best.

Sometimes we differentiate a root guru from our other gurus and focus particularly on him or her for our practice of guru-yoga. Our root guru is usually described in the context of tantra as the one who is kind to us in three ways. There are several manners of explaining these three types of kindness. One, for example, is the kindness to confer upon us empowerments, explanatory discourses on the tantric practices and special guideline instructions for them. If we have received empowerments and discourses from many gurus, we consider as our root guru the one among them who has had the most beneficial effect upon us. For deciding this, we do not examine in terms of the actual qualifications of the guru from his or her own side, but rather in terms of our own side and the benefit we have gained in our personal development and the state of mind this guru elicits in us. We consider the rest of our gurus as emanations or manifestations of that root guru. Or, when we practice guru-yoga, we think of all our gurus in the analogy of the eleven-faced Avalokiteshvara. Our root guru is the main face, while the rest of our gurus are the other ten faces. All share the same body and, together, comprise a single Buddha-figure.

Practice before Finding a Guru

Often in non-traditionally Buddhist countries, such as in the West, we do not have great access to many spiritual teachers. The Buddhist masters who visit may come only once a year, at the most. Thus it is difficult to find a sufficient variety of gurus to investigate for us to be able to select a proper one, and there are insufficient opportunities to examine the qualifications of any of them. But this does not mean that before we have found a teacher who can serve as our guru, or even as our root guru, we cannot begin our Dharma practice and at least engage in some of the forward-leading preliminaries.

First of all, we can certainly receive teachings from the various spiritual instructors who visit our countries, and do so in the manner of simply attending a lecture. As for engaging in meditation practices, even without a root guru we can proceed, on the basis of receiving instructions in a lecture or reading a book, to practice, for example, the placement of the four types of close mindfulness on the bodily sensations, the feelings of a level of happiness or unhappiness, the mind, and all phenomena. We can also begin, without a root guru, to practice the meditation methods for developing a dedicated heart of bodhichitta and a correct understanding of the nature of reality, or voidness, on the basis of reading such texts as Shantideva's Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Of course, however, before we can engage in any meditation practice, we must first ponder and think over carefully what we have heard or read so that we understand it correctly.