Tantra: Special Basis & Mind for Focusing on Emptiness

The Benefits of Taking the Body of a Buddha-Figure as the Basis for Voidness in Tantra

The next point in our four-point analysis of why tantra is more efficient than sutra is that there’s a special basis for voidness. When we do focus on voidness, voidness is the total absence of an impossible way of existing. So, an impossible way of existing of what? That what is the basis of the voidness. An absence of the table’s existing in an impossible way, the absence of the watch’s impossible way of existing, the absence of my body’s impossible way of existing. All of those are bases for voidness.

Whether or not it can appear at the same time as we focus on that total absence of impossible ways of existing, that’s something else. The basis of voidness is crucial here. That basis for voidness is very special in tantra. It’s the body of a Buddha-figure, rather than our own ordinary bodies. And we need to appreciate, why is it that in the subsequent realization period, we are focusing on the voidness of our bodies as a Buddha-figure. What advantages are there to that?

There are several points here. First of all our ordinary body does not transform into the body of a Buddha. Our ordinary bodies arise from karma and disturbing emotions. You can speak about the aspect of mental activity that will have a physical basis – on a more Buddha-nature level – as, from one point of view, what transforms into a Buddha-body, but certainly not our ordinary bodies that arise from karma and disturbing emotions. Whereas the Buddha-figure body does transform into the body of a Buddha, since it arises from a mind that understands voidness and from Buddha-nature factors. Within the understanding of voidness, it’s arising as this Buddha-figure.

It’s not out of karma and disturbing emotions that, “I want to have this type of body.” You’re in the bardo, and you grasp for anything to give you solid, true existence, so any basis, because of grasping. And karma directs the impulse of why you grasp to this particular sperm and egg, if you’re going to be a human – to put it into a more humanized form; it’s not exactly that mechanism, but in any case we can understand it like that. So here, the Buddha-figure body is what transforms into the body of a Buddha, on the basis of Buddha-nature factors and so on. In that sense it’s very special, and we would want to work with that, in terms of method and wisdom together.

Secondly, in sutra, if we’re working with the voidness of our own ordinary bodies, when you think of that basis, it arises from a mind that’s affected by, the technical word I use here is “discordant, deceptive appearances.” “Discordant” means that it’s not in harmony with the way things exist – that’s the word “dualistic,” it’s not in harmony with how it exists. And it’s “deceptive,” because it appears to be truly existent. So it the basis for voidness arises from a mind that’s affected by that discordant, deceptive appearances.

When we focus on our bodies, the mind is always thinking in terms of: it’s truly existent, and it’s short, fat, and ugly; or beautiful, and young, and healthy and strong; or whatever, old, young... and it has disturbing emotions associated with it. You’re focusing on your body and you have a whole history of attitudes towards it, disturbing attitudes towards it, judgmental attitudes towards it, and grasping for true existence, “My body,” or “I don’t really look like that,” when we look at ourselves in the mirror, “That’s not really me,” when we see the white hair, and the wrinkles, and the extra weight. So when we focus on the voidness of our ordinary bodies, our ordinary figures, then that mind is, what they say, infected by these prior moments of tainted cognition.

So even though during that total absorption on voidness, you don’t have that type of tainted cognition, and the judgmental things, and all of that, because you don’t even have an appearance of the body at that time; nevertheless you’ve been infected by this long history of associations with the body. That makes some problems in the understanding of voidness, some difficulties with it. Whereas if in tantra we first dissolve the ordinary appearances of our body and our clinging to it, and then the body of the Buddha-figure arises from the mind understanding voidness, then there’s no history infecting that mind, which focuses on that Buddha-figure body, and then it can then focus on the voidness of that Buddha-figure body. So the understanding of voidness of a Buddha-figure body will not have that same type of infection, or history of associations that the focus on the voidness of our ordinary bodies would tend to have. Do you follow? That’s a benefit of focusing on the Buddha-figure as a basis.

The next benefit is that in sutra our ordinary body as a basis for focus on voidness is constantly changing. And because it’s constantly changing, it’s very hard to maintain single-minded concentration on the voidness of that body. Now the position is different, and you have this ache, and this pain, and an itch, and you might feel hungry. The basis for the voidness is constantly changing, so it’s difficult to maintain single-minded concentration on the voidness of that basis. We are not focusing on impermanence here, we’re focusing on voidness.

Our ordinary bodies are perfect objects for gaining the insight of impermanence – with everything changing – but when we focus on the Buddha-figure body, the basis here is what is called in technical jargon a “so-called permanent nonstatic phenomenon.” It’s a nonstatic phenomenon. It’s not that it’s static, it’s not that it’s permanent in that sense of static. It can be affected by things and it affects other things. We’re not frozen as a Buddha-figure. We can help others. We can do things. If we were a static phenomenon, we couldn’t help anybody, we couldn’t do anything.

So it’s a nonstatic phenomenon, but it’s a “so-called permanent” one, in the sense that it doesn’t change in the sense of getting an itch, and getting hungry, and having to go to the bathroom, and getting old, getting gray hair, growing fat, or losing weight – none of those things. Each time that you go back to your meditation on voidness of this figure, the figure is basically the same. And because the figure is always the same – in this sense a so-called permanent phenomenon – then the meditation on the voidness of this figure as the basis for voidness is much more stable. You’re able to sustain it much more easily. That’s the third benefit.

The fourth benefit of a Buddha-figure – this is the last, there are only four that are specified in the texts – is that our ordinary body is a gross form appearing both to eye consciousness and mental consciousness. You can see your body, and you can think of your body – our ordinary bodies. Whereas in tantra, the body of a Buddha-figure is a subtle form that appears only to mental consciousness. And because it’s only appearing to mental consciousness, it’s much easier to comprehend that it doesn’t have solid inherent existence. It’s like a hologram. And because it’s like a hologram, a mental hologram I should say, holograms actually you can see, but when we’re talking about something that only our mental consciousness perceives, then it’s much easier to be able to comprehend its lack of inherent existence, true existence.

So, those are the benefits of using a Buddha-figure body as our basis for voidness, as opposed to focusing on the voidness of our ordinary bodies. OK? That’s the third point.

Using a Special Level of Mind to Focus on Voidness in Anuttarayoga Tantra

The fourth point in the four points of our analysis here concerns the level of mental activity that focuses on voidness. The voidness itself, that absence of impossible ways of existing, is the same in sutra and tantra, as explained in the Gelug tradition.

The basis for the voidness is special, and similarly, the mind that focuses on voidness is special. But this point is only a relevant point in anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra. In general tantra, the three lower classes, we’re using the same level of mental activity as in sutra. So if we speak only about general tantra, then there’s no special feature here, but in the highest yoga tantra, anuttarayoga, then we use this subtlest level of mind, subtlest level of mental activity. That subtlest level is extremely advantageous to use, because it is more subtle than the level at which the disturbing emotions occur, it is more subtle than the level at which conceptual cognition occurs, and it’s more subtle than the level at which appearance-making of true existence occurs.

Because it’s more subtle than all of that, it doesn’t require “three countless eons,” which I like to refer to as “three zillion eons,” because “countless,” is a finite number. It’s the largest finite number, but beyond the scope of what could be counted. How many stars are there? How many atoms are there? Well, there’s a finite number, but you sure couldn’t count them – “zillion” is our English idiom. So there’s three zillion eons – of positive force.

The first one is necessary for gaining a conceptual cognition of voidness. If you can do it with the clear light mental activity, it doesn’t require a zillion eons to get that. The second zillion is to get it without disturbing emotions. To get free of that, you have to get rid of the first set of obscurations, those that are the disturbing emotions. Clear light mental activity is free of that, so it doesn’t take the second zillion eons. The third zillion is required to be able to perceive the two truths simultaneously, in other words, get rid of the second set of obscurations regarding all knowables which causes the appearance-making of true existence. You can’t have appearance-making of true existence and a total absence of true existence in one moment, but the clear light level of mental activity can do that. The clear light mental activity doesn’t give rise to appearances of true existence, so you don’t need a third zillion eons of building up positive force to be able to get that simultaneous cognition of the two truths.

Now, that clear light cognition itself, that clear light mental activity, although that is the level of mental activity of a Buddha, it doesn’t automatically have cognition of voidness. What you want to do is to get that to be the mind that cognizes voidness, and by itself, it’s not automatically blissful either. So, blissful awareness is used as a method to get the mental activity more and more subtle; it’s one of the methods for gaining access to this subtlest mental activity. In that way it becomes a blissful awareness of voidness as well, a blissful clear light awareness of voidness, which – because of it being that subtlest level – automatically will be without disturbing emotions, will be nonconceptual, and it will be able to have an appearance of non-true existence simultaneously.

That’s the special level of mind that focuses on voidness that we find only in anuttarayoga tantra. We don’t find that in general tantra. Also, of course, once we access it, even like that, you can’t sustain it all the time, and it’s not omniscient yet. There’s still a lot of work to be done. OK? So, let’s take, again, a few moments to reflect, and then we’ll have a final period of questions.


You said, in sutra, when we concentrate on voidness, we have baggage from our obscurations?

What I said was that when we focus on the voidness of our ordinary bodies, because we have so many associations with our ordinary body, which are deceptive and disturbing, that it tends to infect our understanding of the voidness of that body, so it’s like having baggage.

But when we look at it from the point of view of tantra and we take refuge in the understanding of voidness, we don’t have that baggage? That’s not clear to me.

In tantra, what we’re focusing on is the voidness of the Buddha-figure body, of ourselves as the Buddha-figure body, having that appearance. So we don’t have all these associations with it in terms of, “How do I look?” “Make sure that I look good,” and “Is my hair OK?” “Is my make-up on?” We don’t have all those associations of disturbing emotions with a Buddha-figure body. It’s very important, of course, to be aware that our ordinary body, just as our body of the Buddha-figure, is equally devoid of existing in impossible ways.

We certainly don’t want to identify with that Buddha-figure body as a truly existent me, because that’s insanity, that’s craziness. Sure, you start going into voidness in terms of the voidness of ordinary appearances, of my ordinary body, but what sustains through the meditation is the voidness of this Buddha-figure body. That you can sustain, because you’re not focusing on the body that gets an itch, and you’re not focusing on – you have all these associations about what you look like and, “Am I attractive?” Or, “Am I ugly?” And, “How much do I weigh?” And so on, “my age."

So we see it as perfect, that it has that perfection?

Not so much that it’s perfect, but it is what will be able to transform into the body of the Buddha.

So it’s kind of a trick to get around addressing the roots of your attachment or aversion to your body?

No, because we start out with understanding the voidness of our ordinary appearance. I wouldn’t call it a trick. What it is, is a method for being able to sustain meditation on voidness, because eventually what we want to be able to do is to sustain it forever, have a true stopping of the disturbing emotions. So it’s a method for being able to, among other things, sustain that understanding of voidness, not have it be infected by other associations, and itches, and getting hungry...

Is there something that resembles analytical meditation in sadhanas?

One doesn’t do the type of analytical meditation of bodhichitta and voidness in a sadhana that one would do in a sutra practice. One has done that already, prior to this. If you want to do an analytical meditation on voidness, you would do that as a separate thing. In the actual sadhana practice, you just remind yourself of the conclusion, so that you can go to it more quickly. You don’t lose the flow of the whole sadhana process.

“Is there something which resembles an analytical...?” “Analytical,” I don’t like that word, I think that’s misleading, it is a “discerning,” the actual word is “discern.” So you want to discern things with an “exceptionally perceptive state of mind,” that’s vipashyana. You’re trying to discern things in a very specific type of way.

So you do this type of process in a visualization, a very, very complex visualization, in which you go from the center of the visualization, let’s say the tip of your nose, to the various parts of the body, if we are speaking from the perspective of the central figure, and then the other figures, and the rest of the mandala, and the various element mandalas, and all these things, outer and outer and outer, and then come back in. This is called the concentration of the lion’s gaze, to go in and out like that. That would be the equivalent of a discerning meditation.

To translate that as “analytical meditation” is weird, but it’s the same word, so “discerning.” It’s to get the mind to be exceptionally perceptive. Vipashyana isn’t always with voidness. To call it “special insight” is misleading. It’s “exceptionally perceptive” – it can perceive anything, it can understand anything, it can discern anything. So it’s done with these incredible visualizations, that’s one level of it. There are many more complex levels in which that’s done. But going in and out like that would be an equivalent. You stop and you do that at a certain phase within the sadhana, or you can, it’s optional. It’s not a standard thing that one does. It’s a more advanced thing that one does.

The thing with these sadhana practices – it’s very important not to be intimidated by them, and not be tantraphobic. There are two extremes: people who jump into it prematurely, just because “It’s high,” and “I’m advanced,” and “I’m high,” and “I want to be high,” and so you do it, and then you go off into fantasyland, and it has absolutely no relation to our ordinary lives, and it becomes really a trip. This is a mistake.

But likewise, it’s a mistake to be tantraphobic. That is another extreme, thinking that it’s so advanced, and it’s so mysterious, and so on. If one understands it, and understands the theory, one sees that this is an incredible system, an incredible type of practice. The deeper you go and understand how it works, it really is extraordinary. And one approaches it step by step, and gets into it at whatever level we’re able to do, as long as we have the basics of the sutra level, then we can do that.

For that, so many things are important for us to have some basic understanding and some basic conviction in. In the highest class of tantra, we meditate analogous to the whole death, bardo, and rebirth process, in order to achieve a true stopping of that. You meditate in analogy with that, and that acts as a way of purifying it. It’s like a transformation, a substitute, as it were. Then the understanding of voidness, because that’s the general way in which mental activity operates in terms of going down to the subtle levels and coming back out. That requires conviction in rebirth. If we’re not convinced that rebirth is the case, then it’s a joke trying to purify it and meditate in accordance with it, and it doesn’t mean anything.

These are very important before tantra, and, as I always emphasize with people – and His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well emphasizes this; my approach is mostly coming from His Holiness’ way of approaching things – one really needs to have conviction in the four noble truths. This is standard Buddhism. Everybody says that, so take that seriously. What does that seriously mean? And refuge, take that seriously. What it seriously means is to really want to achieve a true stopping of the first two noble truths. You have to identify this, like identifying the object of refutation, the object to be nullified. And you have to be really convinced that it’s possible to get rid of them, and that there’s a way, the path.

The understanding of voidness will get rid of them. How does it get rid of them? And it’s possible to get rid of them forever, so that they never recur. That’s a true stopping. And it’s possible for me to do that, not just Buddha Shakyamuni. And if we are Mahayanists, that it’s possible for everybody to do that. Otherwise, what are we doing with compassion, if you don’t think that people could actually be free of suffering? So it’s just wishing everybody well, and knowing that, “Ha-ha-ha, you’re going to suffer anyway, but good luck, I wish you well.” There has to be conviction that it’s really possible, so that you can put your full heart into it. Now that requires quite a lot. Certainly not something which is doable within this lifetime, for most cases.

When they talk about enlightenment in one lifetime, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, that’s a bit of propaganda. In theory, it’s possible. In likelihood, it’s not so likely that that’s going to happen. So, for that understanding of beginningless and endless mental activity, rebirth is very essential, for understanding voidness, for understanding karma, for this whole Buddha-nature discussion that we’ve had, for tantra as the everlasting continuity. Everlasting, no beginning, no end, that means rebirth. These are issues that one has to have chewed on well. It doesn’t mean that, “Hallelujah, now I believe.” It takes an awful long time to really be convinced of it on a gut level, a really, really long time, decades for most people.

But if we take it seriously that these are important issues to work with, then we can get into tantra practice, “Provisionally I accept it. I do admit that I don’t really understand it fully, but I acknowledge its importance and I’m going to provisionally accept it and then work with tantra.” That is sufficient for getting into it, and to have some basic bodhichitta, voidness, renunciation. Renunciation is absolutely essential, turning away from ordinary appearances, our ordinary appearance of true existence, our ordinary appearance of this type of body, and all the hang-ups that we might have associated with it, and our jobs, and whatever – renunciation, turning away – determine to be free from that whole disturbing side. It doesn’t mean that we give up life. You have to correctly identify the first two noble truths: suffering and its causes. Otherwise we over-refute, as Tsongkhapa says, nullify too much. Nullify too little, or nullify too much, both are extremes to avoid – the middle path.

Not only is tantra something not to be intimidated by, but to respect. That’s very important for being able to practice it properly. One needs respect for it and this whole thing about secrecy, keeping it hidden, in a sense. It’s not that you have to hide something because you’re ashamed of it and so on. The thing is that you want to keep it sacred. It is sacred, something special that I respect so much, and so I don’t want a Kalachakra ashtray in my living room that people flick their ashes in, or have my baby wear a Chenrezig T-shirt and spit up food all over it. We respect it, keep it private. This word “hidden,” or “secret,” that’s the connotation of “private.” Keep it private. You don’t want people making fun of it, “What’s that funny looking thing on your wall?” People just being gross about it, that takes all the sacredness out of it, and then it really loses its energy in terms of our own practice, because people were just making fun of it. So for that reason you keep it private. Only with those that would show similar respect...

So tantra is something which is very special, and because it’s so complex, then there’s no danger of getting bored with it, if we’re going to be practicing it for the rest of our lives, the rest of this life, one particular sadhana practice. Of course, you go through stages in how you practice it, depending upon the level of familiarity, but still it’s so challenging and there are so many other levels to do it at that it’s not an issue of getting bored, “Done it, done that, now what to do?”

What is very important in practice, is to remember the nature of samsara. The nature of samsara is that it goes up and down, and that is not just with respect to rebirth states, which is the way that it’s usually presented. It goes up and down from moment to moment, “Now I feel like practicing, now I don’t feel like practicing.” “Now I’m in a good mood, now I’m in a bad mood,” and that’s going to happen all the way up to liberation as an arhat. Sobering thought. That is going to continue to happen all the way to liberation from samsara.

Therefore, as the young Serkong Rinpoche would say, his motto, “Nothing special.” “Well, I don’t feel like practicing.” “Well, there’s nothing special about that. It passes. That comes and goes.” That’s why this far-reaching perseverance, the armor-like perseverance. You do it anyway and just go forward. The progress is always nonlinear. It’s going to go up and down, go up and down, make a little bit of progress, and then we get in a difficult relationship or something, and you get angry again. Well, no need to get depressed. What do you expect from samsara?

It goes up and down. It’s not linear. Over a long period of time, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says, if you check yourself over a period of five years, then you can see some progress. Don’t look in terms of day-to-day. It’s not going to always get better from day-to-day. It’s not a linear process. It’s an up and down process, so nothing special about that; no need to get excited, no need to get depressed. You just go ahead, plow ahead, and continue. That is this armor-like perseverance. That's very important in practice.