Once we have practiced for a while, trying to maintain this deep awareness of nondual profound and clear – the profound understanding of voidness and the clarity of the visualization – then we practice the four types of mental stability. Not necessarily that we practice all four of them; we would start with the first, and when we have gained some proficiency on that first one, then we could proceed to the next ones. They describe the practice as one progresses along the spiritual path toward enlightenment.
Mental Stability on the Four Types of Recitation
The first one that we do is the mental stability on the four types of recitation, recitation of the mantra. This is when we do the mantra recitation. And the four types of recitation that we do of the mantra are with the focus on:
- ourselves as the deity, let’s say Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig)
- Avalokiteshvara in front of us, and doing the visualizations of the mantra as if it were coming from in front of us.
- Avalokiteshvara in our heart. So ourselves as the Buddha-figure, Avalokiteshvara, and then sitting in our heart, Avalokiteshvara, and the mantra coming from there. And when we say the mantra then there are also the lights going out, and so on.
- The letters in the heart of these various figures. So either just ourselves as Avalokiteshvara, and then a moon disc, and then the syllables of the letters of the mantra on the moon disc, going out (the sound) as we recite the mantra. (And in all of this we imagine that we’re making the sound of the mantra.) Or in the heart of the Avalokiteshvara in front of us, that you have a moon disc and the syllables, and we’re focusing on that as we say the mantra. Or ourselves as Avalokiteshvara, in our heart another Avalokiteshvara, smaller; and in his heart, a moon disc with the syllables.
So it`s a matter of what are we focusing on while we are reciting the mantra.
You don’t have to do the four in a particular sequence and you don’t have to do all four. But there are four different things that one can practice. It’s good to have variations like that, because when we’re doing for instance a retreat… It is a serviceability retreat, is what it’s called; to make the layrung (las-rung), in Tibetan. It’s to make the mind serviceable, which means that it can do what we want it to do with the practices, that we are familiar enough with the practice, and with reciting 100,000 mantras or a million mantras (it’s different in each of the practices).
The standard way in which you follow this is that if the mantra has less then 15 syllables, then you recite 100,000 times for each syllable. So to do the serviceability retreat, the layrung, of Avalokiteshvara, you have to recite the mantra 600,000 times. If you’re doing it of Tara (OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA) that’s ten syllables, so you have to recite it a million times.
It's easy to keep count. Let’s say you’re going to do a thousand mantras in a session. Then you have a pile of ten marbles (or rice or whatever it is), and then when you’ve done a hundred – you know, a rosary – you move the rice, one of the rice grains, to the side. And when you’ve done a thousand, you’ve moved all ten – so that’s a thousand. If you’ve got to do more than a thousand, you have another pile of rice and you move one of those once you have done a thousand. Not so difficult to keep count. A rosary has one hundred and eight beads, so that counts as a hundred. It’s not so difficult.
When one is doing this type of retreat (serviceability), it’s to make the mind serviceable. So after that the mind can serve to do all the actions of – the more advanced actions of – a practice, which would be to do the fire puja, which is a purification thing that you do after this type of retreat; and the consecration of the vase; and general consecrations; and the self-initiation; and, when you become qualified enough, giving the initiation to others. So the mind becomes serviceable to do all of that by doing all this mantra recitation. And it’s nice to have a variety of different visualizations so you don’t get bored. It would be incredibly boring if you had to do the same visualization for the whole process, so it’s good to have many different visualizations. You’re making offerings to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas with some of the recitations. Lights are going out and you’re helping different beings in the different realms – you can have each of those realms as a different visualization. There’s lots of different things that we can do to add a little bit of variety while we’re doing this recitation.
Ways to Recite Mantras
In reciting the mantra like this, there are two ways of reciting. And again we can alternate, or just do one, or just do the other – whatever you like. One is called the verbal recitation, in which we recite out loud. And usually it’s not recommended to shout the mantra; that’s going to disturb your winds and breath very much. You recite it softly. And then there is what’s called the whispered recitation. And the whispered recitation is what we normally would call in the West just reciting it in your head. And that you usually do while holding your breath. These are the two types of mantra recitation that one can do. This is the initial practice that we do when we do the sadhana.
And of course while doing all of this the big emphasis is on what Avalokiteshvara represents, which is of course compassion. We would have compassion as a state of mind accompanying any type of practice that we do, but especially if it’s Avalokiteshvara. It’s important to have that.
Mental Stability on Abiding in the Flames
Then if we are quite skilled in this first level of mental stability, on the four types of recitation, then we can go on to the next one. That’s mental stability– that’s what I am translating from the word “dhyana”, actually – the mental stability that comes from abiding or dwelling on the flames, it’s called, staying with flames – you know, from fire. And here we imagine that the letters of the mantra standing up on the moon in our heart – either just ourselves as Avalokiteshvara, or inside the heart of the Avalokiteshvara in our heart (which is always better, to do it like that) – then the syllables are actually flames in the shape of the syllables. And you imagine that the flames are making the sound of the letters. It’s not that I, as Avalokiteshvara, am making the sound of the letters, but we imagine that the flames are making the sound. That takes quite a while to be able to actually imagine that. You know, it’s not like you imagine it coming out of your mouth, that we are saying it. The flames are making the sound. And again you try to get concentration on that.
Mental Stability on Abiding on the Sound
And then the third mental stability is the mental stability from abiding on the sound. And here you imagine just hearing the sound of the mantra in your heart, like an inner voice. That also is quite delicate, to be able to imagine that. So it’s just like the sound is being produced, and it’s like hearing it.
So, like this, when we combine this practice with the understanding of voidness – which of course we’re always doing – then the first type of mental stability goes together very nicely with understanding the voidness of the person making the sound. That’s me as the Buddha-figure. And then the abiding on the flame is the voidness of the mind as the origin of the sound. There the flames are just making the sound, so represents the voidness of the mind making the sound. And then the third is the voidness of the sound itself. You know, just the arising of the sound, which is like the nature of the mind – it just gives rise to mental holograms. So in this way we get to the nature of the mind. It can be combined with mahamudra type of practice, and so on.
And at the end of all of this, when you have mastered this third level of mental stability, abiding on the sound, then you have achieved combined shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha is a fully concentrated mind, stilled and settled. And vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind which comes from understanding the voidness of the person making the mantra and the mind producing the mantra, and the whole process of the voidness of the sound and the arising of mantras, and so on. That’s the procedure that is followed in kriya tantra for achieving of the five pathway minds leading to enlightenment – the first. When you have completed this, when you have achieved combined shamatha and vipashyana, that is the final attainment of the building-up pathway of mind (tshogs-lam), what’s called the path of accumulation by some translators.
Mental Stability on the Voidness of the Sound
Then you’re ready to go to the fourth mental stability, which is the mental stability on the ultimate nature of sound that brings liberation. The mental stability on the ultimate nature of sound that brings liberation. And so here we are focusing on the self, us, making the sound; the hearing of the sound of mantra; sound itself; and the voidness of all of this. And the difference here, what makes this a different level, is that now we are doing this with combined shamatha and vipashyana. And that’s called the yoga without signs (mtshan-med-kyi rnal-’byor). The first three is the yoga with signs (mtshan-bcas-kyi rnal-’byor).
And when we do this yoga without signs with a conceptual mind on all of this – of the voidness and the sound of the mantra, and so on – that would be the second of the five pathway minds, the applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam); or the path of preparation, many people translate it. And when it becomes nonconceptual, then it’s the seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam), the path of seeing. And then from there you go on with the accustoming pathway mind (sgom-lam), that’s the path of meditation. And then finally the pathway mind needing no more learning (mi-slob lam) when you actually achieve enlightenment.
So that is basically the outline of the kriya tantra path and how you actually would proceed on the basis of the kriya tantra practice to reaching enlightenment.
Mantras and Prayers
What is the difference between mantra and prayer?
Prayer in Buddhism has two forms. One is called an aspiration or wishing prayer (smon-lam) in which, basically, it’s a strong wish to be able to benefit everybody, to have a clearer mind so you can benefit them better, to have a long life so that you can help others throughout a long life, help them more, and so on. And it is not that you are praying to somebody; although one can make requests, it’s called, like: “Please inspire me to be able to do this, and through the interaction of your inspiration and my wish, plus all the positive force that I’ve built up (or merit) from positive things that I am doing in practices, may I be able to achieve this.” So it’s not that you are praying to someone. It’s a strong directing of your intention, wish to achieve something.
And then there is a dedication prayer (bsngo-ba), in which we have built up a certain amount of positive force from a constructive action, whether it’s meditation, or helping somebody, or whatever it might be. And then we direct that positive force toward achieving a goal, like what we would just simply wish for in the aspiration type of prayer or wishing type of prayer. And so it’s a little bit like… The way I describe it is saving of a document that you have created on a word processor on a computer, saving it into some sort of folder – you’ve built up some positive force and you want to save it, direct it toward a goal. And if you don’t save it, it will automatically go into the goal of improving samsara. And so you don’t want it to just improve samsara, to make it that I can – I’ve meditated on voidness and now I can have an interesting, entertaining conversation with somebody about it. Not like that. But you want to actually save it, either in the liberation folder or the enlightenment folder: may this go toward achieving liberation or may it go toward achieving enlightenment.
So this is prayer. And a prayer can be either in a standard form, the way that some great master wrote it – and some of the prayers are extremely beautiful, like the tenth chapter of Shantideva’s text, Engaging in the Bodhisattva Behavior, which has a beautiful, long dedication – or it can also be something that is in your own words. But you don’t want it to just be a recitation of words without any meaning, and nothing going on in your mind. Okay.
The mantras are something else. A mantra is a set of syllables, which often are Tibetan words – not Tibetan words, I’m sorry – which often are Sanskrit words. Sometimes Tibetan sentences or words are thrown in. These are called peltsig (spel-tshig) in Tibetan; they’re something which are “thrown in”. So you say a certain mantra, like Tara mantra, and then at a certain point in the mantra you might add a Tibetan sentence of “may this increase my deep awareness and merit” and so on. Sometimes the words are added in Sanskrit, sometimes they’re added in Tibetan.
In any case, a mantra is a set of syllables. They’re often words, and in some cases they are just seed syllables that represent body or speech or mind of a Buddha. Other times they are words that seem like nonsense words, like KILI KILI SILI SILI HILI HILI, this sort of thing, which also in the commentaries will have a meaning, based often on where in the Sanskrit alphabet the first letter of it appears and then what that represents. So there are meanings to these seemingly nonsense syllables. And they are recited in order to protect the mind. This is the explanation of the word “mantra”; something to protect the mind.
And what you want to do is to, on one level, perform a type of mental judo. If the mind is racing with verbal thoughts, mental wandering – which is very unharmonious type of energy, so it goes together with our energy also being nervous and not at peace, not calm – then to protect the mind from that we, rather than try to just stop the mind from doing this (which is quite difficult to do unless you have tremendous discipline), then in a sense you use that verbal energy and flip it, like you would flip someone in judo – to use that energy to recite a mantra instead. This, personally, I found is the best method to use when you have a song going through your head that you can’t stop – which happens to me. One of the reasons why I really don’t listen to music very much is because then I sing it in my head for the next week and that drives my crazy. Because then I feel like a cricket or some sort of insect, that when the sun goes down to a certain level, then automatically I start making this noise. And I find that utterly stupid and unacceptable, and the only way that I have learned to be able to stop that is recite a mantra in your head instead. So it protects your mind from that. And you have to be quite forceful in terms of reciting the mantra and staying with it.
And it can protect the mind also from… If you have negative thoughts then recite the mantra, because each of the mantras, if it’s with the – I mean, it goes together with the Buddha-figure, and each of the Buddha-figures represents the full enlightenment of a Buddha, but also represents a certain feature as its main emphasis. So Avalokiteshvara would be compassion. So if I feel annoyed with somebody, or something like that, then you recite OM MANI PEME HUM, and remember compassion. If the mind is very dull then you might remember Manjushri and have the feeling of having clarity of mind. This is very, very helpful. I always do this when I am stuck in trying to understand something, or to explain something clearly when I am trying to write, or how to formulate it. If I am blocked, then I stop and I do Manjushri mantra.
What if you are afraid of a situation?
If you are afraid of a situation? Tara. Tara protects from fear. Or the name mantra of your guru, of your spiritual teacher. There are also guru name mantras, in which you take the Tibetan name, let’s say – if it’s a Tibetan teacher – and translate that back into Sanskrit, because the Tibetan names are all translations of Sanskrit words. So if you don’t know Sanskrit you have to be told what it is, for the teacher, and what their full name is – which usually you don’t know, because if they are Rinpoches they just use the title of the Rinpoche; they don’t use the actual name. And you recite that. That’s very good for protection. Like the name mantra of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very good.
So the mantra is to protect the mind. And on a deeper level the mantra shapes the wind, the breath. So it shapes the breath, the energy-winds; and in shaping the energy-winds it allows us to then gain control over the energy-winds, because we have given it a particular form. So it’s in a more harmonious vibration, in a sense.
And then there are very advanced practices which, on the basis of the breath being shaped into a mantra, specifically OM AH HUM, that it enables us to bring those breaths into the central channel. And the purpose for that is to reach the subtlest level of mind, what’s called the clear light (’od-gsal), which is the most efficient for understanding voidness. And it’s only that level of mind, that a – I mean a Buddha has only that level of mind, not the grosser levels of our usual type of mind.
So mantra has many, many levels of meanings. So it’s not just a prayer.
Do you need to know the meaning of the mantra?
It’s nice to know the meaning of the mantra, but I think it’s not absolutely essential to know the meaning of the mantra, of each word of the mantra. But rather what’s more important is to know what is it that my mind is generating while I’m reciting the mantra: compassion, or clarity of mind, or energy, or not being afraid, or the strong ability to deal with any situation. These sort of factors that are associated with the Buddha-figure in the mantra. To know the actual meaning of the words – helpful but not, I don’t think, absolutely necessary. I would think that most Tibetans don’t know the meaning of each word of what they’re reciting in a mantra. After all, it’s in Sanskrit; it’s not in Tibetan. Okay?
If we’ve received both anuttarayoga tantra empowerments or initiations, the highest class of tantra, and also these kriya practices of Tara or Chenrezig, how do we put them together in our practice?
Well first of all Tsongkhapa himself, in a work in which he described the stages of his own spiritual development, said that unless you really have some experience of the three lower classes of tantra, you can’t really appreciate how much more effective the highest class of tantra is. Mind you, Tsongkhapa practiced and knew everything. So it’s not bad to know something about the lower classes of tantra. And hardly anybody practices the second and third classes of tantra; they are incredibly complicated, especially the third class, yoga tantra. So usually it’s kriya tantra and anuttarayoga tantra that most people have experience with.
Now we can in our daily practice do a little bit of both, of course. That’s not a problem. In terms of when we are going to emphasize one thing or another… Well for instance I was advised by my teacher as part of the preliminaries – you know, this ngondro (sngon-’gro), the type of preliminaries that you do before really getting into more intensive practice – one of the two things in the preliminaries that I was instructed to do was the 600,000 of Avalokiteshvara and the 600,000 of Manjushri, recitations of the mantra, in order to try to build up more positive force for the compassion side and the wisdom side (discriminating awareness side). So I did that. So that’s quite useful to do in the early stages of one’s practice. Definitely.
Then another aspect, regardless of what type of practice we’re doing of anuttarayoga, is at some point if you really are serious in your practice, you want to have a long life to be able to make as much progress in this life on the spiritual path, use this precious human rebirth and benefit others as much as possible. So for that the White Tara retreat is – the Long Life White Tara retreat – is very important. And that requires reciting the Tara mantra a million times.
The fire puja to conclude the Long Life White Tara retreat is particularly difficult to do. Fire pujas comes, basically, from a Vedic ritual; it’s not specifically Buddhist as a ritual itself. So you imagine the fire in the form of Agni, the fire deity, which is a perfectly Indian part of the Hindu pantheon. And then in Agni’s heart is the Buddhist deity that you’re practicing. You offer various substances into a fire with appropriate visualizations and motivation, and so on. It’s quite an elaborate, difficult ritual to do because it requires things like, not only different types of grain, but there’s a certain type of grass that grows in India, not so easy to get here. And you have to collect these pieces of grass and they’re fairly long – about maybe, I don’t know centimeters, let’s say thirty centimeters long, something like that, or a foot long in Western measurement. And you throw pairs of it, two of them together, into the fire.
Well, for the Tara retreat you have to do that, you have to throw in 10,000 of these, reciting a mantra with each one, and of course you can’t get up. So you have to do it in one sitting, along with all the other things that are part of that fire puja. And in my own case, when I did this it turned out that I did not have enough. I didn’t have enough for 10,000. It was short of 10,000. And so Serkong Rinpoche made me do the whole fire puja over again. Which was very good, very kind of him, I must say! Very kind. So that’s the Long Life Tara practice. So that’s very helpful to do.
How important is it to get these special materials from India?
For the fire puja, the various grains can be bought in the West. The different types of grass – it’s basically a grass that has sections in it, and there are grasses like that that grow in other parts of the world, not necessarily in India. We have to find them. In India it’s easier because usually you don’t have to do it yourself. You can give an offering to some monk who knows where it grows and goes and collects it for you, which is what I did. If you had no idea where to find it, it could take you an awful long time to find the thing.
And you need people who are experienced, because the fire has to be built in a certain way: You have to have a fairly simple, but not that simple, a colored powder mandala underneath the fire. You have to have certain sticks, they’re called “yam-shing”, which are a certain specific length depending on the type of fire puja that you’ve done. It has to be a certain thickness and a certain length and that’s all specified for the type of fire puja you do. It’s quite complicated. And it’s helpful to have – if you really want to know what you’re doing – to have studied the thing before doing it, and Tsongkhapa wrote quite a nice text on fire pujas.
So it is possible to get the materials in the West, to a certain extent. Kusha grass, you have to have some sort of kusha grass – this stuff that’s passed out in initiations – which is a type of reed. It grows in India; they make brooms out of it. But there might be something similar to that here. I don’t know. Whenever initiations are given here in the West and you’re supposed to pass out kusha grass to everybody – to put a long piece and a short piece underneath the mattress and pillow after the first day to examine your dreams – they always import it from India.
It’s not so easy in the West. Also you can’t just build a fire in the middle of Berlin to do a fire puja. So you also need – so you need a special place to do it. In most places, it’s not allowed. And you need an assistant: you need somebody to hand you the things when you do the fire puja. You have to sit there and it’s very hot, because you have to be close enough to be able to put things in the fire, and pour melted butter onto the fire, and stuff like that. And you are not allowed to move your hands beyond where your crossed knees are, so somebody has to give you the various items and so on. It’s very complicated.
Sometimes when people in the West do group retreats (which is a very much Western thing; Tibetans don’t usually do things in groups), when the Westerners don’t know how to do the fire puja and don’t know the language – and the rituals certainly aren’t translated – then they will sort of sit around and watch somebody else do it and imagine that they’re doing it. Or somebody will actually do it for them, but they’ll help put some things in the fire, and so on. That’s not as effective as if you yourself actually put the things in the fire, obviously, make the offerings yourself. So it requires quite a bit of study.
Advice for Retreats
And if you do any of these retreats, whether we’re doing the preliminary practices of 100,000 prostrations or we’re doing one of these serviceability retreats, they can be done either four sessions a day (you’re not doing anything else); or it could be done one session in the morning, one session at night, and during the day you do whatever; or just one session in the morning or just one session at night. If you’re doing four sessions, just that, then you set up a perimeter and you are not allowed outside of that during the retreat. If you are doing it just one session in the morning, or one at night, or both, then you don’t do that; you can go out. And if you’re doing it isolated like that, then you imagine and in your mind give permission to whoever it is that could come in to the circle – like your doctor, for example, if you get sick, people who bring you food, this type of thing.
And what Serkong Rinpoche said is most important, is that the first session you only recite three mantras. Don’t recite any more. Or prostration – you only do three prostrations, no more. Because that will be the minimum number that you have to do every day in order to maintain the retreat. You have to do something every single day in order to maintain it. If you miss a day, you have to start all over again. So if you are sick you can at least say the mantra three times, it’s not a big deal; or the prostrations three times, or even just one time. Then you’re able to maintain the continuity.
And if you do it really strictly, it should always be done in the same place. I mean, obviously, if you are doing it four sessions a day it’s only in the same place. But if you’re doing it only in the morning or only in the evening, the proper thing is that it should only be in one place. But there can be exceptions. There’s always exceptions. I was doing a retreat once and I was asked by His Holiness’s private office to translate an initiation and teaching that His Holiness was giving in another place. I was doing this in Dharamsala; His Holiness was doing this in Manali. I was in the middle of a retreat and I got that request to do this translation, so I asked Serkong Rinpoche and he said, “Don’t be silly. Of course you go to translate for His Holiness. Just do your basic minimum of the practice each day.” So there are exceptions, like that.
Therefore in the discussion of the various rules of discipline in the vinaya, they always indicate when the necessity overrides the prohibition. In other words, there are always lists of situations in which you don’t have to follow the prohibition – you know, what you are not supposed to do – because necessity calls for something else. A monk is not supposed to touch a woman. But if a woman in drowning, a monk doesn’t just stand there with hands folded and say, “Oh, what a shame!” The monk would take hold of the woman and try to rescue her. So that’s the classic example that’s given.
Deciding on Our Main Tantra Practice
How do you choose a main tantra practice?
Some people ask their spiritual teacher, and they throw the dice or whatever, or they have special powers and they’re able to tell. That’s one way, of course; but that requires a really special teacher that actually is able to do this. But it’s always best if it comes a little bit from our own side, and so that would be indicated by what we have a strong inclination towards. “Inclination” means automatically we’re drawn to a certain Buddha-figure. You see all these paintings, and things like that, and there is one that especially catches your eye. And one that really you feel very comfortable with. That it’s not something that you have to force yourself to do. So that gives a little bit of an indication. And then you have to try. And then, also, everything depends upon what’s available. Of course if you have dreams of various Buddha-figures and visions and so on, that obviously is a strong indication as well. But it’s not so easy actually to really decide what is the main Buddha-figure practice that I am going to do. And in the beginning you practice many of them – I mean the way that Tibetans do.
Of course there’s the saying that in India they practice one deity and they achieved attainments, all the attainments, and the Tibetans practice all the deities and achieved nothing. There is that statement as well. But putting that aside, most Tibetans practice many of these figures and, as His Holiness says, it’s only when you are willing and able to spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, doing tantra practice – when you have reached that stage, you’re going to do it for the rest of your life, that then you have to focus on just one practice.
Practice at the Time of Death
What practice to do at the time of death?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Obviously if we’re going to do the death meditation and visualizations and so on that are recommended in anuttarayoga tantra practice, you have to have one deity system – so that in bardo you imagine you arise in this figure or that figure. However what I found really very interesting was what His Holiness has explained. He said that actually, although theoretically these tantric practices and so on at the time of death are obviously the most effective thing, that it’s not very practical. He said that at the time of death it’s such a difficult period in your life, when you’re actually dying, and these tantric visualizations and practices are so complicated, that it runs the danger if you try to do them as you’re dying, you’re going get very confused, very frustrated; your energy is not so strong, obviously; and you’ll die in a very confused, frustrated, annoyed state of mind. That’s not good.
So, he said, far more effective when you’re dying – I mean, it’s okay, you’ve built up all the habits while you were alive, of doing this practice. That’s enough. But at the time of death you want to do something much more simple that you can actually maintain as you’re dying. And the best thing is bodhichitta. The aim is to be able to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all, and continue to have a precious human rebirth and connection with the spiritual teachers, and so on, so you can continue and reach enlightenment for the benefit of all. That’s the best thing to keep in mind when you’re actually at the time of death. Don’t try to do something really complicated; you’ll just get frustrated and confused. This I thought was wonderful practical advice and amazingly honest. And you can’t get a better source than His Holiness the Dalai Lama.