What Is a Sadhana?

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There are numerous types of practices that are done with each of the classes of tantra. There are four different classes of tantra in the New Translation (Sarma) traditions – that’s Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa – and there is a division of six types of tantra practice, just a division scheme, in Nyingma, the Old Translation Tradition. The practices done in each of these classes have slightly different structures. But, basically, they usually have two stages: one in which we work with the imagination, visualization, and one in which we go more into practices that are not just imagined, to explain it in general. In anuttarayoga tantra – the fourth and highest class of tantra in the New Tradition scheme – and in the higher three classes of the Old Tradition scheme, we work with actual methods to gain access to the subtlest level of mind  by working with the energy channels and subtle energy winds of the subtle body. All these systems and their classifications of their practices are rather complicated, and there’s no need to go into that today.

What I’d like to focus on, in more general terms, is the first stage in our tantra practice, since that is primarily what all of us at our level are actually involved with. Even if we are doing practices that seem to be involved with the subtle energy systems, chakras and so on, in actuality, we’re just working with those in our imagination. Again, it is visualization practice, and that’s fine. This is how we have to begin.

The visualization practices are done within the structure of what’s known as a sadhana (sgrub-thabs). “Sadhana” is a Sanskrit word that means a method for actualization, and “actualization” means the generation of ourselves as a Buddha-figure. For each Buddha-figure, there are many sadhanas, not just one and, for each Buddha-figure, there are many different forms it can take, like four-armed Chenrezig and thousand-armed Chenrezig, and there can be practices of one Buddha-figure in several classes of tantra. 

Since there are so many variations of the practices, I think it’s quite important to not get overly attached to the one that we’re doing, as if it were so special – because all of them are special. Everybody will say that their sadhana is really special. We just practice the sadhana that our teacher gives us and that the lineage of our teacher has practiced, without overinflating it as: “Whoa, this is so special!” and consequently getting quite a disturbing attitude toward it, as that tends in the direction of sectarianism.

There are different lengths of any one sadhana. There will be an abbreviated one, a full one, and sometimes a medium length one as well. My teacher Serkong Rinpoche said that the abbreviated forms, the short forms, are for advanced practitioners. It’s the long, full forms that are for the beginners. In the full forms, we basically recite with each step the script of what we are doing. It’s like an opera of visualization. Only when we are fully familiar with all the steps of the long ones can we then fill their content in when we recite the short forms. That’s why the long forms are for beginners and the short ones for advanced practitioners.

In addition to reciting what we are actually visualizing and the states of mind that we’re trying to generate, like bodhichitta, and so on, there are various prayers and lots of mantras. Some of them are the mantras associated with the Buddha-figure. Some of them are mantras that are associated with helping us to get into a certain state of mind. For instance, there’s a mantra for becoming mindful of voidness, where the Sanskrit words in it indicate a line of reasoning that will get us into the proper state of mind. So, there are many different kinds of mantras. 

Often these mantras contain not only Sanskrit words, but sometimes whole sentences in Sanskrit. Also sprinkled in are various syllables that represent something, like OM AH HUM for body, speech and mind. When we make offerings, which play a very large part in these practices, we also recite a sentence in Sanskrit: “I offer this to the Buddhas and their entourage.” The Sanskrit word for each of the offering substances is inserted for each offering. 

Structure of a Sadhana

So, what are the parts of a sadhana practice? What is the script? What are the major points that are there in the full forms and abbreviated in the short forms, where we fill them in without doing any additional recitation.

Before I get into the parts of the sadhana, it is important to emphasize that we have to really familiarize ourselves with the long ones before we can effectively practice the short ones. If we only do the short ones without knowing the long ones, they won’t be very effective because we’re leaving out too much. We don’t even know what is packed into it.

Also, sometimes we do retreats in which we spend a certain lengthy period of time only doing one sadhana practice and reciting lots and lots of mantras: that is not the time to first learn the sadhana. We need to have really familiarized ourselves well with the sadhana before doing a retreat. If we try to do a retreat with the long sadhana practice and we’re not familiar with that practice, and we think, “I’ll get familiar with it during the retreat,” it’s not very effective. It’s not very effective at all, because we spend a lot of the time doing the practice incorrectly or incompletely. It might be very beneficial, then, before undertaking an intensive retreat to take some time off from our daily lives to familiarize ourselves with the sadhana. We could even call it a retreat, but that’s not really a retreat. In the West, we call going away for a weekend of practice a “retreat,” but that certainly is not a retreat in the way that the Tibetans use the term.

A retreat is when we have a very set schedule of daily practice for usually quite a long period of time, depending on the speed with which we do the practices. In usually entails reciting a sadhana four times a day and reciting a mantra several hundred thousand times. It could be a million times; it all depends on the mantra. There may also be other additional mantras that we recite ten thousand times each. That’s a retreat. A weekend going off and having some lectures is a weekend off. It’s not the Tibetan word for “retreat.” The Tibetan word for “retreat” here, las-rung, means a practice that “makes the mind serviceable” – in other words, by this tremendous amount of repetition we make our minds fully operational for successfully undertaking further, more advanced practices.

Lineage Practice

Getting back to the structure of a full sadhana, let’s focus on anuttarayoga sadhanas. They start with a lineage practice. We visualize the whole lineage going back to the Buddha, in whatever form the Buddha might have appeared in for giving the practice. Whether it’s as Vajradhara, whether it’s as Samantabhadra, whatever it is as, it doesn’t matter. It will be different in each practice. We imagine the whole line of lineage masters going all the way down to our present master, the one that we receive the empowerment from, and we recite a verse for each of them, or it can be a verse that includes a few of them.

We shouldn’t think of Samantabhadra or Vajradhara as being different from Buddha. Buddha is appearing in these forms. Buddha can also appear in many other forms in this lineage practice – as a red Vajradhara in Vajrayogini or as Yamantaka or as Kalachakra. It doesn’t matter. Just as the teachers appear in all sorts of forms, Buddha also appears in many different forms. Otherwise, we have the absurd conclusion that Buddha didn’t teach the tantras, that only Vajradhara or Samantabhadra, who are different from the Buddha, taught the tantras; that is incorrect.

In any case, after we recite each verse, the master mentioned in it dissolves into the next one, the next one, the next one, and eventually they dissolve into our spiritual teacher, and he or she dissolves into us. This instills in us a very strong feeling of respect for the lineage, that this is something that is authentic, goes all the way back, and it’s been tested over time. We feel tremendous inspiration, not just from our actual teacher but also from the lineage masters as well.

The more that we know about each of these lineage figures, the more inspiration we will feel from them, rather than them just being names that maybe we can’t even pronounce. Just reciting names without knowing anything about these people is not very effective; in fact, it usually becomes quite boring. We want to just rush through this section because it’s just names. If we want this part of the practice to be more effective, we need to learn a little bit about at least the major figures of the lineage. Nowadays, more and more information is available through the Internet or books. It might not be available in our own language, but there are online tools for translating, so you can use them.

Next, after all the teachers have dissolved into us and we feel inspired, we dissolve all ordinary appearances as well into voidness. Then, we generate ourselves in the simple form of the Buddha-figure. These Buddha-figures will usually have both a simple form and a full form. The full form could have, let’s say, 24 arms, and the simple figure will then have only two arms. We usually start the practice with the simple figure, not the full figure. 

Obviously, to do this dissolution into voidness, we need already to have some understanding of voidness. Also, to generate ourselves as a Buddha-figure, we need some understanding of Buddha-nature, and how, on the basis of that, it’s possible to generate ourselves as a Buddha-figure. We have to study these things already and have some level of correct understanding.

Preparatory Practices: Making Offerings

There are three basic sections of the sadhana that follow: the preliminary or preparatory practices, the main practice, and the concluding practices. Within the preparatory practices, the order of what we do will be slightly different in different practices, and they will be more extensive in the fourth class than in the first class of tantra, but, anyway, the structure is basically the same. 

We need to prepare for the actual practice. So, how do we prepare? First, we are going to make a lot of offerings in the practice, so we need to prepare the offerings. Making offerings is a big part of the practices. Obviously, we need to have developed an attitude of generosity beforehand; otherwise, we’re not going to want to make any offerings. 

There are many different types of offerings. For all the classes of tantra, there is the offering of different types of external objects: water, incense, flowers, food, music, and so on. These are modeled after how we would greet and entertain an honored guest if they came to our home in ancient India. In the highest class of tantra, we have further types of offerings: inner offerings of various aspects of the body, and so on. There’s no need to go into all the details. Some of these offerings are going to be made to the Buddha-figure in front of us, some offerings are going to be made back to us as a Buddha-figure, and some are going to be made to protectors against interference and obstacles.

In tantra, we gain an understanding of voidness with a blissful state of mind. There are many reasons for that. A blissful state of mind is very efficient for getting down to the deepest, the subtlest level of mind. I don’t really want to go into much detail about that; there’s not much time. The point is that when we make offerings, it’s very important to do so joyfully and to have the feeling that they bring joy and happiness to the Buddhas, not that they don’t have them already, but we imagine that they bring happiness to them. When we experience them ourselves, we experience them with a blissful state of mind. In both cases, it’s with an understanding of voidness. It’s not that: “Oh, I’m this little thing, and you’re so wonderful. It’s such a big deal, what I’m giving to you.” Making offerings is a way of showing respect, and it also builds up more and more positive force.

Anyway, in the sadhana, first what we have to do is transform the offerings. We can’t just offer ordinary things to the Buddhas. How do we transform them? Now, here’s a difficult word. It is the same word as “inspiration.” Sometimes it’s called “bless” the offerings. Well, what does that mean? This word that some people translate as “bless,” I translate as “inspiration” in certain contexts and, in other contexts, as an “uplifting.” This is what inspiration does; it uplifts to a more elevated state. That’s the connotation of the Sanskrit word adhishthana (byin-gyis rlabs). The Tibetans translated it with the word “to brighten,” to brighten something to a higher state. Sometimes people translate that as “consecrate” – consecrate the offerings – in English. But consecrate has the connotation in English of making something holy, and that doesn’t apply in a Buddhist context.

Brighten means to make brighter?

Yes. To increase its brilliance, in the sense of uplift the offerings, transform them into a higher state in which they appear as nectars devoid of true existence.

How do we do this? What is the process? To start with, these offerings are sitting there on the altar or the shelf, and they are ordinary substances. They could be water, or they could be tea, they could be flowers, they could be incense, or special substances that we put in some tea that we get from the teacher. There are all sorts of things that we could have. The point is that they are the basis upon which we can label ordinary forms, but we can also label uplifted forms on them – the pure offerings that we’re going to make once we purify the appearances of their ordinary forms and of appearing to be truly existent.

Our subtlest level of mind, the clear light mind, has subtlest energy-wind as its support. The two are an inseparable pair. They can give rise to a pure form as a Buddha-figure without an appearance of true existence. It’s our subtlest energy-wind that actually appears in these forms. Sakya, one of the Tibetan traditions, explains the inseparability of ordinary, impure samsaric appearances and pure nirvanic appearances. They both derive from this inseparable pair: clear light subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind. The only difference is that the samsaric ordinary appearance is tainted by confusion and grasping for true existence. What we are doing with this uplifting, this inspiration, is, rather than focusing on the ordinary type of impure appearance, we dissolve it into voidness and focus, instead, on the pure appearance. The two appearances are like two different levels of this subtlest energy-wind; we want to go from the lower, grosser energy level to the higher, subtler energy level.

We want to get rid of this projection of everything as ordinary and as if encapsulated in plastic – whether we’re talking about the ordinary vibration level of water, flowers, incense and so on or the Buddha vibration level of nectars – and then focus on the pure one, the appearance of nectars devoid of true existence. We make that uplifting not only in terms of transforming the offering substances into nectars, but also later in the sadhana in terms of transforming ourselves into Buddha-figures and our environment into a mandala.  

To prepare the offering substances for being offered, we first imagine chasing away interferences. Then we dissolve into voidness their ordinary appearances and our projection of true existence and generate them in a pure form as nectars devoid of true existence. Then, we increase them so that they’re never going to run out – we don’t have to be stingy with them, thinking that there’s not enough for everybody. They multiply infinitely, and they just have good qualities – the flowers won’t make us sneeze, for instance. 

We do this with the outer offerings. If it’s one of the two higher class of tantra, we follow this procedure also with the inner offerings. These are uplifted in the context of quite complex visualizations with many, many steps, each of which represents a particular practice on the second, more advanced stage of the practice. The uplifting process here is very deep and profound.

After uplifting the offerings, in some practices we invite local protectors to come before us and request that they ward off interference to our practice. We then repeat the preparatory practices that we’ve done with ngondro. There is refuge (taking safe direction) and the generation of bodhichitta. They could go first, before the uplifting or the so-called “consecration” of the offerings, or they could be both there and after we’ve done it. As I said, the order of these steps vary in different practices. However, one structure that we find in most of them is refuge and bodhichitta as a basis, then Vajrasattva practice as a purification, and then the seven-part practice – with prostration, offerings, and openly admitting negative things that we’ve done in the past, etc. There’s always a guru-yoga, imagining getting inspiration from the body, speech and mind of the guru. Very frequently, there is the retaking or reaffirmation of the bodhisattva vows and – if the class of tantra we’re practicing has tantric vows – also the tantric vows. 

So, we have all of these preparatory practices, and there can be more that are put here, depending on the practice we’re doing. They all can be thought of as building up further our network of enlightenment-builder positive force – positive force dedicated with bodhichitta to the attainment of enlightenment.

Main Practice

Then, we have the main part of the practice. We begin with voidness meditation once more, to build up further our enlightenment-builder network of deep awareness. We focus on voidness, clearing out all appearances before “rebooting” and generating ourselves once more in the form of a Buddha-figure, this time as the full Buddha-figure.

Another feature that we visualize is a protected space, sometimes called a “protection wheel.” This can come either as part of the preparatory practices or now as part of the main practice. Also, we can generate ourselves as the full Buddha-figure either before or after generating this protected space and doing any practices associated with it. In many sadhanas, we generate ourselves in the form of a forceful figure at the center of the protection wheel while we do those practices.

To be able to do these protection wheel practices, we need to have a feeling of confidence that all interference is chased away by them, and, in a sense, we are in a protected space to be able to practice without hindrance. There are many different ways in which we visualize this protected space and there may be various figures in it. There is quite a bit of variation here. 

If we haven’t generated ourselves as the Buddha-figure before generating the protection wheel, then now, within this protected space, while maintaining this understanding of voidness as best as we can, we generate ourselves as the full Buddha-figure. In the more elaborate sadhanas, we generate first a palace in which we live. In some sadhanas, we generate multiple other figures inside and outside the palace as well. 

There are many variations in the way of generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure. It’s done differently in the different classes of tantra, and within one class of tantra, there will also be variation. In general, instead of having our unawareness and disturbing emotions activate our samsara-builder karmic potentials that give rise to an ordinary samsaric form – which occurs, of course, at the time of death, followed by bardo and rebirth – what we want to do is transform this process by imagining instead our compassion and bodhichitta activating our enlightenment-builder positive potentials to give rise to a pure nirvanic form of a Buddha-figure.

In Gelug, Sakya and Kagyu sadhanas of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, we imagine transforming the process of death, bardo and rebirth in a much fuller way than in the lower tantra classes. We do this with visualizations and practices that emulate what happens with death, bardo and rebirth as a way of generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure. Similar to death, with our understanding of voidness, we imagine an absence of all ordinary appearances. Then, similar to bardo, we imagine arising in a simple form, and, similar to rebirth, we imagine arising in the full form of a Buddha-figure. 

In more detail, similar to what happens at death, we imagine our gross minds become subtler and subtler, through an 8-step or 10-step sequence depending on the practice, until we reach the subtlest level, the clear light mind, and focus this on voidness. When we arise as the Buddha-figure, we do so in a five-step procedure representing the five aspects of Buddha-nature.

This generation practice similar to death, bardo and rebirth is the most important part of the sadhana. Ordinary death, bardo and rebirth are what we want to get rid of forever and  become a Buddha instead.

In Nyingma sadhanas, we have a similar, though slightly different procedure for generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure. Rather than the procedure being conceived in terms of emulating the process of death, bardo and rebirth, it’s conceived in terms of emulating how pure awareness (rigpa) gives rise to appearances. Rigpa is equivalent to the natural state of the clear light subtlest mind devoid of all obscurations and it can give rise to both ordinary appearances and pure appearances. 

The process of arising as the Buddha-figure visualized in sadhanas, here, is called the “three samadhis.” “Samadhi” is a state of absorbed concentration. First, we focus on pure awareness, and that’s similar to death, although it’s not called like that. Then, the energy of that pure awareness emanates, communicating to others, and that’s like the subtle forms of bardo. Then an actual appearance arises and that’s like rebirth. Although the texts don’t state that this is in analogy to death, bardo and rebirth, it’s very, very similar. It basically comes down to doing the same type of thing.

So, pure awareness and…?

Communication – they use the word “compassion,” but it’s referring to the energy going out in a communicative type of way – and then an actual appearance.

The way we imagine accessing rigpa is similar to how we focus on rigpa in Nyingma practice, as opposed to how we access the clear light level of mind in anuttarayoga tantra practice. In both systems, however, the three-step structure for bringing about a true stopping of the clear light mind or of rigpa giving rise to uncontrollable recurring rebirth with its ordinary appearances and giving rise, instead, to the pure appearances of the enlightened state is the same. It is just the framework and specific visualizations that are different. 

When we visualize a central Buddha-figure, either a solitary one or a couple, with various other figures and all in a mandala palace, the “me” is an imputation on all of them. In this sense, we are all of them. We’re not just the main figure, we are this entire assembly of figures and we are even the palace. Even if we are visualizing a couple in the center of the mandala, we’re both of them. 

Of course, that gets into a lot of technical detail of what is our point of view as we’re visualizing ourselves as all of these. We need to get that instruction for how we actually do that from our own tantric master. It’s not so simple, but all these different figures represent different aspects of ourselves: the different elements, the different aggregates, the different senses, the different types of deep awareness. We’re the whole thing, just as we are in our ordinary form with the digestive system, the circulatory system, the arms, the legs, the skin, etc. All are integrated into a whole.

We usually visualize another smaller figure at the heart of the central main figure and a seed-syllable in this figure’s heart, as well as various discs, like the sun and moon, at the main figure’s principal chakras, and in some practices, various other figures inside the body of the central Buddha-figure constituting what is known as a “body mandala.”

Once we’ve set up this visualization and recite what everybody looks like, we imagine what’s called “the deep awareness beings dissolve into the visualized closely-bonding ones.” It’s a misconception to think that those deep awareness ones are the real ones, and these visualized ones are the imaginary ones; that’s not quite the way that it is explained. It’s a type of visualization practice that gets us into the custom of bringing the various energy-winds into the central channel so that our generation as this figure becomes stable. 

Then, we imagine that now, in this pure form, we receive the full empowerment. That can be done in an abbreviated form. In some practices, it’s done in a very full form.

At various points in the sadhana, we make various offerings. In the preparatory practices, when we did guru-yoga, we make offerings to the guru as the Buddha-figure in front of us. Here, in the main part of the sadhana, we make offerings back to ourselves. Of course, when we imagine taking the empowerment, we make offerings to the empowering deities. There are lots of offerings made.

Then, there are various meditation practices to stabilize our visualization, so we’re no longer reciting anything now. We try to gain concentration on more and more details of the visualization, to help us stabilize our visualization of the whole thing. There are many different types of practices that are done here.

Then, there’s the mantra recitation. If the mandala has many figures, we recite a different mantra for each figure, and some of the figures have more than one mantra. The main figure usually has at least three mantras. We do many visualizations while we recite the mantras. We visualize lights going out from our hearts, giving offerings to the Buddhas, and lights going out, removing the suffering from all beings and giving them happiness. Importantly, we visualize all these lights coming back in to our hearts. There are lots and lots of other visualizations that we can do while we recite the mantras, such as imagining that the lights we emit exert the four types of enlightening influence on others – pacifying disturbances, increasing good qualities, bringing disorder under control, and forcefully ending dangerous situations. 

During many of these steps during the sadhana, especially when making offerings, we make  various mudras – different hand gestures – and we sometimes ring a bell. So, we’re doing something with the body, the speech and the mind simultaneously.

Concluding Practices

After the mantra recitation, we recite the Vajrasattva mantra once or three times to purify any mistakes we might have made and then make more offerings to ourselves. Then we get the concluding parts, which often include inviting guests to a feast and offering them a torma (gtor-ma), which is like a cake. This entails a purification and transformation of the torma again, like what we did with the inner offering during the preparatory practices. We may offer a torma to the gurus, we may offered one to the Buddhas. Very often, we call in various protectors and offer tormas to them and request them to protect us from interferences. We also offer all these guests outer offerings and inner offerings.

After making these offerings, we request these guests to return to where they reside. We then transform from being in the full form of the Buddha-figure back to the simple form. Then, there’s a recitation of a very long prayer. Each verse covers a different stage of the practice. We review the whole practice, starting with the sutra basics, all the way through all the stages of the tantra practice of that particular Buddha-figure. Then, at the end, there are what are known as the “verses for auspiciousness,” which is basically a dedication such as, “May everything be auspicious and all go well for all practitioners and for everybody to reach enlightenment.”

So, this is the basic sadhana practice. Different Buddha-figures and different lineages of the Buddha-figures will have different sadhanas, but they all follow basically the same structure. When we have the short sadhanas, these abbreviated forms, all of these fuller aspects are packed into them. If we’re really practicing the abbreviated forms properly, we fill in all these steps from the long ones. The more familiar we are with these practices, obviously, we can do them more effectively, more quickly. Because they’re so complicated, it will take a whole lifetime to be able to do them really properly, as they’re very, very, challenging.


Is it necessary to do sadhana practice exclusively in the controlled environment of a meditation room where everything is quiet and calm and nice? Or is it also possible to do this type of practice while we’re walking around?

Even if we’ve memorized the sadhana, it would be difficult to go through the whole thing, with all the visualizations, while walking around. However, we can visualize ourselves as the simple Buddha-figure and recite the mantras anywhere. In fact, that’s what we’re supposed to try to be doing. We’re supposed to try to visualize ourselves as the Buddha-figure all the time. Even if we’re not able to do the formal ritual of a sadhana – which, as said, is like a script of an opera, a mental opera that we go through with all the various steps and stages – the main thing is, as Serkong Rinpoche said, “It’s a daggye (bdag-bskyed), not a kagye (kha-bskyed).” A “daggye” is a self-generation, and a “kaggye” is a generation of our mouths, so the main point is not reciting the ritual with our mouths, the main point is the self-transformation.

That self-generation, or self-transformation, is something that we try to remain mindful of – remember, mindfulness is the mental glue not to lose hold of something – all the time, as much as possible, which, of course, is very challenging. In moments when it’s relatively easier to be mindful of our practice, let’s say if we’re going for a walk or something like that and not doing some work that requires concentration, we certainly can be visualizing ourselves, imagining ourselves as the Buddha-figure, imagining all beings are around in the mandala, reciting the mantra, and imagining lights going out from us and exerting the our types of enlightening influence on everyone around us.

This is perfectly valid and valuable tantra practice. Even if we’re not able to do a full sadhana at home because, like the person who asked the question, they’re a new father and the circumstances are pretty difficult for doing that, nevertheless, that need not be an obstacle to our practice. The practice is intended, as all Buddhist practices are, to help bring joy to our minds. If it becomes a burden, so that it becomes torture, and we’re just doing it out of guilt, because of obligation, and we would feel guilty if we didn’t do it, something is going wrong. We need to check with our teacher or check ourselves to see what we might need to correct, because that’s not the way that the practice is intended.

Often the problem is that we’re being inflexible and too fundamentalist, “I have to do it exactly like this, every single day, regardless.” Remember, skillful means. We need to adopt and flow with what’s going on. If we’re going to be on a long plane ride or a long train ride or a long bus ride, we can go through the sadhana there in our seats. We adjust to our circumstances. Or when we’re visiting our parents, or people are visiting us, we adjust accordingly – we can abbreviate our practice while still staying within the boundaries of our vows. There are always different ways of doing things in accordance with the times and conditions. Anything else?

In the self-generation, when we’re generating a complex system with many figures, and when there is a couple, what’s the order of generation?

There are two types of generation styles in various parts of the sadhana: There is an instantaneous generation, in which instantaneously, all 32 figures or 62 figures or whatever number of figures there might be arise all at once. Then, there are other parts of the sadhana  where we first generate ourselves as the male of the central couple, then the female partner and then progressively the figures around the central couple, one by one. Often there are practices in which we imagine that all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas enter and pass down the central channel of the central male and enter into the womb of the female. Then they all are transformed into all the figures of the mandala and then sent out one by one from the womb to their places in the palace, in analogy with the whole process of birth in order to purify it.  There are those ways of generating the figures. 

There’s always the issue of how many Buddha-figure systems to involve ourselves with. Some people want to just practice one, some want to practice many. There’s a joke the Tibetans often quote, “The Tibetans practice a hundred different deity systems and aren’t able to realize any of them. Whereas the Indian masters before practiced just one, and with one were able to realize them all.” There’s that comment, or joke, maybe not such a joke, and it raises the issue for us how many different systems to become involved with. A great deal depends, of course, on our capacities.

The different Buddha-figure systems can supplement each other because one will have more detail on one aspect of practice, and one will have more detail on another, so we get a much fuller picture with practicing several of these systems. Also, if we want to be able to benefit and help all others, we need to know many different systems to be able to teach people of all predilections and answer their questions, these sorts of things. On a more pragmatic level, it’s helpful in our daily activities to have what we call “a bag of tricks” that we can choose from to use in different situations, so that “Sometimes I need the Manjushri image, sometimes I need a Chenrezig image, or sometimes I need the Tara image.” Depending on the situation, we generate ourselves as what’s appropriate, what’s helpful.

When we are asked to take on more and more responsibilities, then first, of course, we need to follow Shantideva’s advice, which is, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” in our English idiom. Examine well before we undertake something to see whether or not we can actually see it through to the end, and if we can’t, don’t accept doing it. Be practical in terms of that, but also, we can always do a little bit more than we think we are capable of.

I used to translate for Serkong Rinpoche and when I was really, really tired, he’d always make me translate for another five minutes, “You can always do five more minutes!” That is really very good training because we can always do a little bit more when our mind is set on going on. We complain, “I can’t take it. I can’t do anything more,” but we can always do a little bit more. Of course, we don’t try to do too much more because then that’s self-destructive. It is counter-productive and we don’t get anything done. But in most situations, it is like in the image of the Kalachakra mandala with its 722 figures, “I can handle more and more things. It’s not overwhelming. It’s not too much. I can fit it in.” 

What does it mean that we are the building as well?

In certain practices, specifically Guhyasamaja, we imagine that each architectural feature of the palace building corresponds to some part of the body, such as the four doorways correspond to our four limbs. I’ve not come across that being explicitly discussed in other practices, but in any case, the closest analogy that I can think of is that of the skin. Like the palace, our skin is the container of all the various systems within the body, so we would include the skin as part of the basis of the imputation phenomenon “me.” 

So, you don’t become an actual building; it’s more of a metaphor?

We have to loosen our ways of thinking so as not to grasp at, “Well, that’s a building. How can it be me?” The palace building is a representation of many things. We have to work with all the different things that it represents. For instance, if we want to have 24 things simultaneously “in our minds,” we would say in the West, if we want to be mindful of 24 things, which means maintaining a mental hold on 24 things, that’s difficult to do abstractly. But if we graphically represent these 24 with 24 arms, it’s easier to visualize these 24 arms simultaneously, and that makes it easier to hold in our minds simultaneously the 24 things they represent. It’s just a method. Similarly, the parts of the palace building also represent different parts of the practice – the four gateways represent the four placements of close mindfulness, for instance. We need to be not so literal. Again, the understanding of voidness is essential.

In trying to work with these Buddha-figures, what do we do with our ordinary experiences of life, in which we suffer, and we get angry, and we have all sorts of disturbing emotions, and so on?

As in general Dharma practice, we try to apply antidotes. If we’re angry, then there are many, many different levels of opponents that we can use for practicing patience, like the methods that Shantideva teaches in his text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. We can try to analyze the causes of our anger and what is it that’s annoying us and then apply the understanding of voidness to who’s getting angry, what we’re angry about and to the anger itself. There are many, many approaches, for instance, analyzing what the negative behavior that annoys us is arising from. We can think of suffering in terms of purification and burning off negative potentials and obstacles. We can think with compassion of other people’s suffering. We can do tonglen, the giving and taking practice. There are many, many ways to transform and work with anger and suffering.

The visualization of ourselves as a Buddha-figure – if we are actually able to do that and remain mindful of that – can also remind us to apply Dharma methods when we are suffering or when we are having disturbing emotions. Also, these visualizations are a way of protecting ourselves. For instance, the visualization of our gurus on the top of our heads during the day, imagining that we’re always in the presence of our spiritual master, protects us from acting badly. That’s not specifically tantra, by any means, we can do that in sutra practice as well. 

For me personally that is a very helpful method. Having had the personal experience of spending a lot of time in the presence of my spiritual teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, I would never act like a jerk, like an idiot when I was with him. I had so much respect for him that how could I act like an idiot in front of him, speaking stupidly, or doing stupid things, or making stupid jokes, or getting angry?

I remember once I was visiting the old Ling Rinpoche, who was the Senior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We were sitting catty-corner to each other, cross-legged on these low Tibetan platforms, sort of like a bed type of thing, a platform with a rug on it, and there was a big scorpion that all of a sudden appeared on the floor between us. Ling Rinpoche made a very melodramatic gesture; it was obviously really a dramatic thing, like, “Oh dear, there’s a scorpion on the floor,” and then he looked at me and said, “Aren’t you afraid?” I looked back at him and said, “How could I possibly be afraid in your presence? You’re Yamantaka, how could I possibly be afraid in the presence of Yamantaka?” He laughed and laughed. Then the attendant came in and put a piece of paper under the scorpion and a glass on top and took it out, as if Ling Rinpoche had sort of materialized the scorpion as a little bit of a challenge. Because of my respect for him, I couldn’t possibly freak out at a scorpion on the floor when I sitting in front of him.

Likewise, when we are visualizing the guru with us all day long and that we’re always in their presence, it helps us to not act like a jerk. Similarly, if we are imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure, that can also help us to not act like an idiot because of this “pride of the deity” – in that context, I like to speak of the “self-dignity,” rather than “pride” – the dignity of being the deity that we are holding. These Buddha-figures don’t freak out, don’t act like idiots, don’t get angry and don’t get upset. It helps us with self-esteem, which is very helpful as a preventive for getting angry or upset.

As for how to deal with suffering, suffering could be, for instance, experiencing the physical sensation of pain. The real issue is how we respond to it. Pain is, after all, just a physical sensation. It’s just the arising of an appearance and a perception of it. It’s nothing more. It may be difficult, but if we look at it in terms of the mental activity involved, it’s no big deal. 

I train people to regard physical sensations like that in the sensitivity training that I developed. I wrote this book and course, Developing Balanced Sensitivity, and one of the exercises in it is to tickle our palm, then pinch our palm really hard, and then just hold our hand. We examine what’s the difference between them in terms of the mental activity? Each is just the arising of a sensation and the perception of a sensation. It’s nothing more. It’s no big deal.

If we can train ourselves with that, then what’s the difference between physical sensations of pleasure, pain and neutral and the mental level of feeling happy, unhappy or neutral? It’s the same. It’s how we respond to the suffering that really is essential. So I had my students sitting there in class pinch their palms. No one screamed out, “Ouch!” and freaked out. Although my students weren’t brave enough to pinch each other’s palms and do the exercise, that would be more effective. An advanced level is to tickle each other’s palms. See whether you can do the same exercise.

Original Audio from the Seminar