Kriya Tantra: Six Deities Practice

Kriya tantra (ritual tantra) is the first of the four tantra classes in the Sarma classification scheme and the first of the six tantra classes in the Nyingma scheme. It puts a great deal of emphasis on cleanliness, vegetarianism and purification.


Before sitting down to do a practice, you do various types of purification. First you apply a mudra. A mudra is a hand gesture. And these hand gestures are going to be different for the three classes of kriya tantra practice. We have three classes here: the Tathagata or Buddha family, the lotus family, and the vajra family. There are many ways of describing what these families are talking about. When we talk about a Buddha-family, “family” is short for “family trait.” A trait is a characteristic, and what it’s referring to is aspects of Buddha-nature. And so we’re working here with three aspects of Buddha-nature. One way of describing it is Buddha family as body, lotus family as speech, and vajra family as mind. So we all have body, speech, and mind. They can be transformed into a body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. If we didn’t have body, speech, and mind you couldn’t attain a body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. A rock can’t become a Buddha.

So we have these three families. The most commonly practiced Buddha-figure in the Tathagata or Buddha family is Shakyamuni Buddha actually practiced as a Buddha-figure. Manjushri is also in the Tathagata family. In the lotus family is where we have Tara and Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig). In the vajra family the most commonly practiced figures are Akshobhya and Vajrapani. There is a specific mudra for each of these families and you apply these mudras to five parts of your body: top of the head, the forehead, the two shoulders, and the heart. This is a type of – making like a protection to ward off negative forces. You have more elaborate practices in the higher classes of tantra; this is the equivalent.

Then you make a preliminary offering, which means that you have to actually set up offerings, whether it’s just water bowls, whether it’s also flowers and incense and so on. Make offerings. Then take refuge – that’s safe direction: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Reaffirm your bodhichitta motivation. Then you need to actually wash yourself, whether you actually take a shower or just wash your face and hands. That cleanliness is emphasized a great deal here. So before you actually sit down to meditate, you wash.

And of course, although it is not mentioned here, before you do any of this you clean the room in which you’re meditating: sweep the floor, dust, and so on. That’s general for any type of meditation. If the room is clean and orderly, that helps your mind to be clean and orderly. And if you are inviting the Buddhas and bodhisattvas as your guests, for making offerings to them, you don’t want to invite an honored guest like that to a dirty room. You would clean the room if you actually were literally inviting the Buddha to your house. So, similarly, you clean the place where you are going to meditate.

So here you actually wash yourself, and then after washing you again do the mudras (the five places), and then you sit down to do your meditation. So this is a preliminary type of cleansing, done on an external level. The kriya tantra deals with the external level as its main emphasis.

Then in the practice of course there is always, again, refuge and bodhichitta. These are absolutely essential in any of these types of practices.

Generating the Six Deities

And then you generate yourself as the Buddha-figure. Now generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure in kriya tantra is done in six steps. In the higher classes of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, there is a slightly different procedure of steps of how you generate yourself as the Buddha-figure.

The Deity as Voidness (Emptiness)

The first step is called the deity (or Buddha-figure) as voidness (emptiness). So the first step is voidness, meditation on voidness. This is very essential. Without this you cannot have proper tantra practice. Without this there is no difference between you imagining yourself as Chenrezig and a schizophrenic crazy person imagining that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra. So we really want to make our practice different from that of a schizophrenic crazy person and do this properly. Now “voidness” means that, well, literally it is an absence, it’s an absence of impossible ways of existing. And so what we need to do in any voidness meditation is to recognize, as Tsongkhapa said, recognize what is our false belief of true existence and the appearance of true existence that our mind is projecting. So identify really what that is. As if, for instance – the simplest level is if everything existed concretely, surrounded by a solid line or encapsulated in plastic as an independently solidly “this” or “that,” establishing its own existence by itself.

And then we need to understand various reasons why this is impossible. Nothing could possibly exist that way. And then we have to cut off – as His Holiness says, like a big sword of Manjushri – just cut off this belief, and not only the belief but that appearance of true existence, and just focus on “no such thing.” That’s not so easy to do, of course. And naturally it’s not as though all of a sudden we don’t see anything. If your eyes are open.... Tibetan meditation is always done with the eyes half open, not staring, unless you’re doing mahamudra or dzogchen meditation, special meditations, but normally we’re just looking down; it’s not with your eyes closed.

Like, for instance, we could use an example. Let’s say you are looking for some chocolate in the house and you look everywhere, where it could be, and after you’ve done a thorough investigation you realize there is no chocolate. So how do you focus on “there is no chocolate?” That’s what we’re doing here. But chocolate is something that exists. “Impossible ways of existing” don’t exist. But when you really focus on “there isn’t any” – that’s your main focus – now you still see the floor in front of you, but you don’t pay attention to that. And the more you absorb yourself into “there is no such… there is no chocolate,” the less your focus is on the floor that you’re seeing.

So this is sort of how you start getting into the focus on voidness. To imagine that all of a sudden the screen goes blank is not so easy, because then what are you doing: you’re visualizing a blank screen. And if you’re doing that with your eyes open then you’re still seeing things, so this becomes rather complicated. So voidness meditation is a whole different topic. However, the thing to bear in mind here is that during your sadhana practice, that’s not really the time to do the analytical meditation and go through, in great detail, voidness meditation. If we’re doing the sadhana correctly, then we have already done a great deal of voidness meditation and we’re very familiar with it.

And so in the actual sadhana we just need to go through, like there’s a Sanskrit line “OM SVABHAVA SHUDDHA: SARVA DHARMA: SVABHAVA SHUDDHO ’HAM.” It has to do with the nature of things. Anyway, no need to go through the specifics of the Sanskrit sentence that you say, but it’s just a matter of reminding yourself of the understanding of voidness. But to remind yourself with some words implies that you have familiarity with it and that you can actually recall your understanding of voidness. If you have no understanding of voidness, reciting the words isn’t going to do anything. And naturally if you have not done extensive meditation on voidness – okay, perhaps you can do some meditation here, but that’s not the proper way of practicing because, in fact, then you lose your focus on the sadhana. Then you go do some separate meditation. So maybe one might practice in that way if you don’t have familiarity with voidness and you haven’t really spent a great deal of time with voidness meditation, but don’t think that that’s the proper way of practicing the sadhana. But at least it might give you the circumstance of doing that meditation.

But when we generate bodhichitta in the meditation as well, in the sadhana, it’s not that at that point you go through the whole seven-part cause and effect process of generating bodhichitta. We should have enough familiarity with bodhichitta to be able to just generate it. By reciting the words, you recall bodhichitta; it comes back up to mindfulness. Again, if you took time out in the sadhana to go through the seven-part and actually generate bodhichitta, that would not be the proper way of doing the sadhana. It would distract you from the sadhana, because then you have to start doing all sorts of other visualizations: everybody having been my mother, and so on. That’s why tantra is very advanced. In tantra, through the recitation of the various things that you’re doing in the sadhana, you are just using that as a cue to recollect the insight and the level of the type of mind that we have already practiced before, that we’re familiar with in our sutra practice. Otherwise you’re just reciting words, which might be very nice, because in Tibetan it’s in a nice rhythm, but it’s not going to bring you great spiritual progress.

So the first step is voidness: that I don’t exist in these impossible ways, fixed as a samsaric being, the way that I am. These deities don’t exist in some solid way. We understand that dependent arising… that with sufficient causes and conditions, based on Buddha-nature, that it is possible that I actually manifest this form. We can think in terms of the inseparable samsaric and nirvana levels that we were discussing yesterday. There are many, many different ways of meditating on voidness or recollecting voidness. And in each of the sadhanas – I haven’t seen this explained so much in kriya tantra, but certainly in anuttarayoga tantra – there is a specific line of reasoning and way of meditating on voidness that you have in each of the different Buddha-figure systems.

And so that actually is quite helpful if you’re doing many different sadhanas together, that – like in Kalachakra, you think of the voidness of yourself, the person that’s doing the practice; and the voidness of the causes for achieving the result; then the voidness of the result that you are aiming to achieve; and then the voidness of the three circles that are involved (the person doing it, what you’re aiming to achieve, and the process of achieving it). So it’s one way of doing it. In other practices, one emphasizes slightly different things. Like in Chakrasamvara: the voidness of the aggregates, then of what we’re experiencing, then the voidness of the person imputed on the aggregates, then the voidness of the voidness of the person imputed on the aggregates, and then the non-conceptual level of that. So there are different lines that we can go through in each of these sadhanas; and if you have teachings on that and know how to do that, it is very helpful.

The Deity as Letters

The second step is the deity as letters or syllables, and these are the syllables of the mantra. And you imagine a moon disc. The discs are always like a full moon, flat, horizontal. We are not talking about a ball here; we are talking about – like a round cushion. And, standing on this cushion, the syllables of the mantra are always standing up; they’re not lying down. Standing up, you have the seed syllable of the deity – or the mantra, whatever it might be – standing in the middle, facing out. And then you have the syllables of the mantra standing around it, around the edge of the moon disc. Now of course the question always arises how to visualize these. And in anuttarayoga tantra there’s a difference between whether they’re going clockwise or counterclockwise or facing in or facing out. That has to do with the specific subclass within that tradition, within that deity system, so let’s not worry about that; that’s a specific detail.

The question is, of course, do you visualize these in the ancient Indian script? Do you visualize it in the modern Indian script (which is different)? Do you visualize it in the Tibetan script? Do you visualize it in Chinese characters? Do you visualize it in our Roman alphabet? How do you visualize it? So that’s not an easy question. Serkong Rinpoche basically said it doesn’t matter: you can visualize it with any type of alphabet. Although in certain practices, not here in kriya tantra, you have parts of the letter dissolving into each other; and that’s quite specific. Now it doesn’t matter what part dissolves into what part, but we need something equivalent to that in order to be able to use these syllables in the fullest way in anuttarayoga tantra. So this depends on each of us, whether we are familiar with these other alphabets or not; that’s basically your choice. But actually the thing to keep in mind is that the original scripts are very complicated scripts in Indian, they’re not the modern Devanagari script that’s used for Sanskrit – although that might be a very convenient way of visualizing these syllables if you know Sanskrit and Indian languages. In any case, visualize the moon disc with the syllable and the letters around it.

Now with these visualizations it’s very important to not just have what’s called the clarity of the visualization – clarity just means a mental hologram; feeling; it doesn’t have to be one hundred percent in focus. The main thing, in addition to that and what needs to have the greater emphasis, is the pride of the deity, which means labeling the conventional “me” on the mind that is generating this. And of course the mind that is generating it is inseparable from what it’s generating. And this is not something which is crazy, because all these appearances as an enlightened being are something which can be generated for real (we can use that word loosely) later on, on our mental continuum, based on Buddha-nature, if we want to look at it that way. Or we can look at it as these inseparable two levels of samsara and nirvana. Two ways of looking at it. I mean, you can put those two together in terms of that, eventually, it will be dominantly the nirvana thing.

But it’s like, for instance, when you meditate on bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is focused on my own individual enlightenment, enlightened stage, that I can achieve in the future, but I haven’t achieved it yet. I can achieve it on the basis of Buddha-nature. And how do you focus on your future enlightenment? Well, you can represent it by a Buddha, Buddha-figure. Something like that. Especially when we are visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure – it represents what we are aspiring to, what we are achieving, but it is not something which is crazy. We know that we can achieve it, if you put enough work into the practice, on the basis of Buddha-nature with the inspiration of a teacher. Therefore when we do these visualizations here, of the syllables on the moon disc, we hold the pride of being that. Conventional “me,” not a solidly existent “me.” My mental continuum can create this.

The Deity as Sound

Then the next step, the third step, is the deity as the sound. And this is the sound of the syllables. Some practices, we have it in this order; in other practices, the sound comes first and then the appearance of the syllables. We find variations on that in different practices. So you imagine that there is the making of the sound of this. OM MANI PADME HUM, for example, if it’s a practice of Chenrezig. And, likewise, we hold the pride of that; that the mind, my mind, can give rise to this in a pure form, like a pure mantra, pure speech of a Buddha.

The Deity as Form

Then you imagine – that from this moon disc and these syllables that are giving forth the sound – that lights go out, make offerings, and so on, to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and all beings, and then come back in, and it transforms into the form of the Buddha-figure. And of course various Buddha-figures are sitting on various things, and so on; that is specific to each practice. So now this is the deity as form. So we imagine that we are now the full appearance of the Buddha-figure. So we basically dealt with mind when we were dealing with the understanding of voidness. We are dealing with speech when we’re dealing with the syllables. Now we are dealing with body in terms of the appearance.

The Deity as Mudras

And then there is the deity as mudras. Mudras are these hand gestures. So again you apply the mudra to the five parts of the body. And again is some type of purification and can indicate activity as well.

The Deity as Signs

And then the sixth deity here (it’s called the six-deity practice) is the deity as signs, it’s called. And that is referring to the rest of the sadhana practice. Okay? So we have the deity as voidness, the deity as the letters or syllables, deity as sound, deity as form, deity as mudras, and the deity as signs. That is the way in which we generate ourselves as the Buddha-figure. And the rest of the practice is going to include various prayers, strong wishes. We find this very much in the Chenrezig practice, for example. May I be able to benefit all beings – this sort of thing.

Meditative Absorption on Voidness

It’s very important with all these practices to maintain the understanding of voidness. When we have meditation on voidness, there are two phases of it. There is the total absorption (mnyam-bzhag) and then the subsequent realization (rjes-thob), sometimes called post-meditation, but you are still meditating. I mean, either you could still be meditating or not meditating, but it’s not always that you’re not meditating. And certainly in the practice you’re still meditating. So it’s what’s subsequent to the total absorption.

So the total absorption: you are totally focused on voidness. That is what you explicitly focus on. “Explicitly” means there is an appearance, the mental hologram, of voidness. And implicitly – in other words, without it appearing – you are not focusing on anything. As I said, you might still see the floor, but you’re not paying attention to that. That’s not part of that mind – that state of mind, I should say.In other words, there is no appearance of the basis of voidness in the total absorption. You are not focusing on me, the appearance of me being void. But on the subsequent attainment, then explicitly we have the basis for voidness, which would be the moon disc with the syllables, or the sound, or the appearance of myself as the Buddha-figure. So that’s what actually appears; that’s what is explicitly known. And implicitly – which means that it’s not actually a mental hologram of it – is the understanding of the voidness of that figure: that it is like an illusion; it seems to appear solidly existent, but it’s not.

And in general when we talk about – in general tantra (this would be the case here in kriya tantra) – that we want to practice method and wisdom together in one state of mind, one state of mind means both of them explicitly. We don’t have them both explicitly here – meaning the hologram of both. So the way that it’s done in general tantra is that the mind, the state of mind, is focused on voidness in the total absorption. That’s what is explicitly there. And that mind doesn’t exist by itself; there is a body as well. So there is a body as the basis. And the body is a body of a Buddha-figure, even though it doesn’t appear. So that’s the way the two are put together. I have a body – I have a body as a Buddha-figure. It’s that body with a mind that has the explicit focus on voidness, even though the body is not appearing. Here this is for general tantra. In anuttarayoga tantra we get more sophisticated ways of putting them together in one moment of one state of mind.

So we maintain an understanding of voidness throughout, here, at least implicitly: that all of this is like an illusion.

Stabilizing Meditation on the Visualization of Ourselves as the Buddha-figure

The main practice, then – after we have done all the prayers and the offerings and things like this – is the maintaining of the deep awareness of what’s called nondual profound and clear. “Profound” is the understanding of voidness; “clear” is the appearance, mental hologram. We want to maintain that. And this is done in two steps. And the steps here are first a stabilizing meditation of the visualization. So we are visualizing ourselves as this Buddha-figure, Chenrezig for instance, Avalokiteshvara: one face; four arms; sitting; holding a jewel with the two hands in the middle; and in the right hand a rosary, the left hand a lotus (the upper arms holding them). And what we would do with the stabilizing visualization, we have also in the more elaborate practices in a mandala, so the building.

So in the sadhana practice, now we’ve done the offerings, we’ve done the prayers, after we have generated ourselves as the Buddha-figure through the six-deities practice, we want to use our kriya practice as a method for gaining a stilled and settles state of mind, shamatha (zhi-gnas). We gain this state through single-minded concentration on the visualization of ourselves as this Buddha-figure. And what we are focusing on is, then, first the vague visualization. Then we fill in, for instance, the eyes, and get the eyes in focus. And then we might fill in the rest of the face. And then get the arms more clearly and the rest of the body. And then what we are holding We add them progressively. And then, if you want to really get complicated, the jewelry that we're wearing. And then the mandala palace around us. So, like this, we practice adding more and more detail. If you can do it. If you can’t do it, you do as much as you are capable of doing. It’s a training. It’s a practice. So this is the first stage for the stabilizing meditation of the visualization.

Vase Breathing

The second stage for stabilizing concentration on the visualization, once you are able to have this visualization clear with its detail, is maintaining the visualization while holding your breath. You do this with a practice called the vase breathing, which is basically an elaborate yoga way of holding your breath. No need to go into the details of how to do it. But in kriya tantra this vase breathing – holding the breath, basically, in your belly – is a way for gaining concentration. If you try just for a moment to hold your breath, breathe in deeply and hold your breath. Observe your state of mind while you’re holding your breath. You find that it’s steady. It’s quiet.

Holding the breath, then, is a method, used for gaining single-minded concentration in kriya tantra. Because, the breath is connected with the energies, and the energies are the energies of conceptual thoughts and so on. So if you hold the breath, you hold the energies, and it’s very difficult to have a lot of conceptual verbal thinking at that same time. So you hold the visualization with that.