What Is a Sadhana?

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There are numerous types of practices that are done with tantra. We have four different classes of tantra in the New Translation (Sarma) traditions – that’s the Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelugpa – and we have a division of six types of tantra practice, just a division scheme, in Nyingma. And each of these classes is going to have a slightly different structure in terms of the practices that we do; but basically we usually have two stages: one in which we work with imagination, visualization; and one with which we are going more into something beyond imagination, to explain it in general. With the highest class of tantra – the fourth class in the New Traditions’ scheme, and in the higher three of the Old Tradition (the Nyingma tradition) – we’re working with actual methods to get to the subtlest level of mind, and working with the channels and energies and so on of the subtle body. This is what we do on the second stage. But all these systems and their classifications of the practice are rather complicated, and no need to go into that today.

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

And with this practice with visualization, we have what’s known as a sadhana. “Sadhana” is a Sanskrit word which means, as I explained, a method for actualization; and “actualization” means to actually generate ourselves as a Buddha-figure. And for each Buddha-figure there are many sadhanas, not just one; and, as I explained, for each Buddha-figure there are also many different forms of that Buddha-figure, like four-arm Chenrezig, thousand – arm Chenrezig, etc. And so, since there are so many variants and 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. So one just practices the sadhana that our teacher gives us and the lineage the teacher has practiced, without overinflating it – in terms of “Whoa, this is so special!” and you get quite a disturbing attitude toward it, and that tends in the direction of sectarianism.

Now we have one type of sadhana in one tradition, one deity. Then there will be different lengths of that sadhana. There will be an abbreviated one; there will be a full one; sometimes there’s a medium level as well. And 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 recite, basically, the script of what we are doing. It’s like an opera of visualization. So we have all the steps, and you recite what you’re doing.

And in that, in addition to reciting what we are actually visualizing or what we’re trying to – a state of mind that we’re trying to generate, like bodhichitta, and so on – we also have various prayers, and we have 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. Like there’s a mantra in terms of voidness, and actually the Sanskrit words give us an indication of a line of thinking and reasoning that will get us into the proper state of mind. So there are many different kinds of mantras. Often these mantras are containing Sanskrit, not only Sanskrit words but they could be whole sentences in Sanskrit. And also sprinkled in it will be various syllables that represent something, like OM AH HUM. So 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.” And you have a different Sanskrit word for the different things that you offer.

So what are the parts of a sadhana practice? What is the script? What are the major things that will be there in the full form? And in the abbreviated form, they’ll just have a little bit of things; and if you’re familiar with the full form, you fill it in without having to do any recitation.

There’s a following thought from that, before I get into the parts of the sadhana. The implication is that we have to really familiarize ourselves with the long one before we can effectively practice the short one. If we only do the short one without knowing the long one, it won’t be very effective because we’re leaving out too much. You don’t really know what is packed into it.

And also sometimes we do retreats in which we spend a certain lengthy period of time only doing this practice, and doing lots and lots of mantras and so on. But that is not the time to just get to learn the sadhana. We need to have really familiarized ourselves well before doing a retreat. If we try to do a retreat with the whole sadhana practice and we’re not familiar with that practice, and we think, “Oh, I’ll get familiar with it during the retreat” – not very effective, not very effective at all, because we spend a lot of the time doing the practice incorrectly or incompletely. Now it might be very beneficial to take some time off from our daily lives to familiarize ourselves with the sadhana, and we could even call it a retreat, but that’s not really a retreat. Just to go away for a weekend – in the West, we call that a retreat – that certainly is not a retreat in the way that the Tibetans use the term.

A retreat is when you have a very set schedule for usually quite a long period of time, depending on the speed that we’re doing, and you do a sadhana practice and you recite a mantra several hundred thousand times. It could be a million times; it all depends on the mantra. 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, is “one which is making the mind serviceable” – in other words, it can really run, it can really work with the practice – by this tremendous amount of repetition.

Now the structure of a sadhana is – the full sadhanas – is that it starts with a lineage practice. So you 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 Vajradhara, whether it’s Samantabhadra, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. It will be different in each practice. And then you imagine the whole line of lineage masters going all the way down to your present master, the one that you receive the empowerment from, and you recite a verse for each one of them; or it can be a verse that includes a few of them.

We shouldn’t think of Samantabhadra or Vajradhara being different from Buddha. Buddha’s appearing in these forms. Buddha can also appear in the form of – there’s a red Vajradhara in Vajrayogini. They can appear in the form of Yamantaka. They can appear in any form: Kalachakra. It doesn’t matter. Just as the teacher appears in all these forms, Buddha of course appears in all these forms. Otherwise we have the absurd conclusion that Buddha didn’t teach the tantras: only Vajradhara or Samantabhadra taught the tantras; and that is incorrect.

In any case, we recite the verse. And each of the masters in it – the gurus – dissolve into the next one, the next one, the next one, and eventually they dissolve into our spiritual teacher, and that dissolves into us. So this gives us a very strong feeling of respect for the lineage, that this is something which is authentic, goes all the way back, it’s been tested over time; and we feel tremendous inspiration, not just from our actual teacher but also from the lineage masters as well.

Well, the more that we know about each of these lineage figures, the more inspiration we will feel from them, rather than it just being a name that maybe we can’t even pronounce. So just reciting names without knowing anything about these people is not very effective, and in fact usually becomes quite boring. We want to just rush through this section because it’s just names. So 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. And nowadays more and more information is available, through the Internet or whatever. It might not be in Russian, but in other languages as well. And there are tools for translating, so you can use them.

And then, when the teachers inseparable from the Buddha-figure dissolve into us, then we focus on voidness. Dissolve all our ordinary appearances. Being inspired, so dissolve all the ordinary appearances. And then generate ourselves in the form of – the simple form of the Buddha-figure. These Buddha-figures will have a simple form and a full form, usually. So it could be a figure with let’s say twenty-four arms as the full figure; the simple figure will have just two arms. So we start off with the simple figure, not the full figure, usually. Obviously we need to have some experience of voidness; some understanding of that. And some understanding of that whole process that we’ve been discussing so far – of Buddha-nature, and how it’s possible to generate ourselves as a Buddha-figure, and what it actually means, and so on. You have to have some understanding.

Then we have three basic sections: we have the preliminary or preparatory practices, the main practice, and then the concluding practices. So, within the preparatory practices, the order of what we do will be slightly different in different practices, and there will be more in the fourth class than there is in the first class of tantra, but, anyway, the structure is basically the same, so I’ll just explain it in one way. So we have to prepare for the actual practice. So how do we prepare?

First, we are going to make a lot of offerings in the practice. That’s a big part of the practices. So obviously we need to have developed some attitude of generosity beforehand; otherwise you’re not going to want to make any offerings. And there are many different types of offerings. For all the classes of tantra we have the offering of external objects; different types: water and incense and flowers, and so on, food, music. These are modeled after how you would greet and entertain an honored guest if they came to your home in ancient India. And in the highest class of tantra we have further types of offerings: inner offering (dealing with various aspects of the body) and so on – no need to go into all the details. And, in making these offerings, some 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 we want to be able in tantra to have the understanding of voidness with a blissful state of mind. There are many reasons for that. It’s very efficient for getting down to the deepest, most subtlest level of mind. I don’t really want to go into much detail about that; there’s not much time. So when we make the offerings, it’s very important to have the feeling that it brings joy and happiness to the Buddhas – not that they don’t have it already, but we imagine that it brings happiness to them. When we experience it ourselves, we experience it with a blissful state of mind. But, in both cases, with an understanding of voidness. It’s not that: “Oh, I’m this little thing and you’re so wonderful. And it’s such a big deal, what I’m giving to you.” And 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… Now here’s a difficult word. It is the same word as “inspiration,” so sometimes it’s called “bless” the offerings. Well, what does that mean? So this word that some people translate as “bless,” as I said, I translate it as “inspiration” in certain contexts, in other contexts it is an “uplifting.” I mean, this is what inspiration does; it uplifts to a more – an elevated state. That’s the connotation of the Sanskrit word adhishthana (byin-gyis rlabs). So, uplift or brighten. Tibetans translate it with the word to brighten, brighten it to a higher state. So sometimes people translate that as “consecrate” – consecrate the offerings – in English.

Brighten means to make more bright?

Yes. To increase its brilliance, in the sense of uplift it, make it in a higher state.

Well, what we do is: These offerings are sitting there on the altar or the shelf and these are ordinary substances. They could be water, they could be tea, they could be flowers; they could be incense, special substances that you put in some tea that you get from the teacher. There’s all sorts of things that you could have. But the point is that this is the basis upon which we can label an ordinary form; but we can also label this uplifted form, the pure offerings that we’re going to make.

Remember, when we spoke about ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure, that this positive potential type of energy, in a sense – well, is it energy? not energy? that’s another discussion – but, anyway, this can give rise to our ordinary form or, when not mixed with confusion, it can give rise to a pure form as a Buddha-figure. So it’s our energy, actually, that appears in these forms. So Sakya, one of the Tibetan traditions, explains that this is inseparable, the ordinary samsaric form and the so-called nirvanic or pure form. Generate both. So what we are doing with this uplifting, this inspiration, is, rather than focusing on the ordinary type of appearance, we go back, we dissolve the projection of true existence onto that, and instead focus on the pure appearance. So it’s like two different levels of energy; we want to go from the lower energy to the higher energy, although both of them are there.

So we want to get rid of this projection of everything encapsulated in plastic. Get rid of that projection – whether we’re talking about the ordinary vibration level or the Buddha vibration level – get rid of that and then focus on this pure one. So we do that with ourselves (in the Buddha-figure), our environment around us (in terms of a mandala), and we do it with the offerings. Clear away the projection of everything encapsulated in plastic – in terms of the ordinary level, the pure level – and rather than focusing on this ordinary level, it’s uplifted, inspired. So we go to this higher level, the pure level of appearance. We do that with our body. We do that with the environment around us, so it’s a mandala in its pure form. And we also do that with the offerings.

So, to prepare the offerings so they can be offered, we need to transform them, uplift them, bless them, or consecrate them – however you want to translate it. So dissolve the ordinary appearance and the ordinary projection of true existence from them, and then generate them in a pure form as nectars and so on. And also increase them, so that they’re never going to run out; you don’t have to be stingy with them, thinking that there’s not enough for everybody. So it multiplies infinitely and it has just good qualities. We do this with the outer offerings. And, if it’s a higher class of tantra, also with the inner offerings. And these can be quite complex visualizations with many, many steps, each of which represents something else on the path. So it’s very deep, actually, this process; very profound, how it’s done.

And, for starting the process, we always imagine chasing away interferences. And then we have a repetition of the preparatory practices that we’ve done with ngondro. So you have refuge (taking safe direction); you have the generation of bodhichitta. So that could go first, before the uplifting or the so-called “consecration” of the offerings; it could come there, or it could be both there and after you’ve done it. As I said, the order of these things is going to vary in different practices. But one structure that we use is refuge and bodhichitta as a basis, and then doing Vajrasattva practice as a purification, and then the seven-part practice – with prostration, and offerings, and openly admitting negative things that we’ve done in the past, etc. The seven-part practice, it’s called. There’s always a guru-yoga, imagining getting inspiration from the body, speech, and mind of the guru. And very frequently we have the retaking or reaffirmation of the bodhisattva and – if in the class of tantra we’re practicing it 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.

Then we have the main part of the practice. All the preparatory things can also be thought of in terms of building up some more positive force, and then there can be – we start with some voidness meditation to build up more deep awareness. So that meditation on voidness both builds up positive force and is the starting point for the actual practice – the actual main part of the practice, I should say. So, again, focus on voidness, clear out all the appearances and, in a sense, again we “reboot” in terms of generating ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure – the full Buddha-figure now.

Now another feature that we have is a protected space; sometimes called a protection wheel. To be able to do the practice, we need to have a feeling of confidence that all interference is chased away and, in a sense, we are in a protected space to be able to practice without hindrance. And there are many different ways in which we create this protected space – as I said, it’s sometimes called a protection wheel – many different ways in which it’s visualized, various figures on it, and so on. So there’s quite a bit of variation here. So this protected space could be generated as part of the preparatory practices, or in some practices it’s generated as part of the main practice. As I said, there’s a tremendous amount of variation here.

So, within this protected space, then maintaining this understanding of voidness as best as we can, we generate ourself as the Buddha-figure – with an understanding of the voidness of the Buddha-figure and of the mandala and so on. And, in the more elaborate forms, most of these figures have a palace that they live in, and some are multiple figures as well.

Now the way of generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure, there will be a variation in terms of how that is done. It’s done differently in the different classes of tantra, and within one class of tantra there will be variation. And what we have… Remember, in our discussion of the meaning of tantra, that instead of having our unawareness and disturbing emotions activate the karmic potentials to give rise to an ordinary form; instead of that, what we want to do is to – and that occurs of course at the time of death, the bardo, and rebirth – what we want to do is to have instead, without these disturbing emotions and so on, that this positive force gives rise to a pure form.

So, in the New Translation period – Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug – what we imagine with the highest class of tantra is this process of substituting for death, bardo, and rebirth, in a much fuller form. So we actually have visualizations and practices which are similar to what happens with death, bardo, and rebirth, as a way of generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure. So, similar to death, the absence of all these ordinary appearances, plus of course the understanding of voidness. And then, with a bardo, arising in a simple form. And, with rebirth, arising in a full form. And, in the process of getting down to the subtlest level of mind, which we do with death, we imagine the whole process of the eight steps – or the ten steps, depending on the practice – of how the gross mind in this lifetime gets more and more subtle at the time of death. So we have quite a nice, very elaborate type of process here. And that is actually the kernel; that’s the most important part of the sadhana – is this generation practice similar to death, bardo, and rebirth. That’s really what we want to get rid of and become a Buddha instead.

In Nyingma we have a similar process but slightly different. Rather than conceiving of it in terms of the process of death, bardo, and rebirth, it’s conceived in terms of how the what’s called “pure awareness” (rigpa) gives rise to appearances. So it can give rise to ordinary appearances; it can give rise to pure appearances. So this is called the “three samadhis.”“Samadhi” is a state of absorbed concentration. So focusing on pure awareness – so that’s similar to death, although it’s not called like that. And then the energy of that pure awareness going out, communicating – that’s like subtle forms for bardo. And then an actual appearance – that’s like rebirth. So, although it doesn’t say death, bardo, and rebirth, it’s very, very similar; basically 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.

And the way of getting to this rigpa is going to be similar to – in our imagination, we do this – similar to how we focus on rigpa in Nyingma practice, as opposed to how we go to the clear light level in the New Tantra system, which is through the stages of dissolving the winds. The structure is the same. It’s just doing it in terms of the type of practices that are emphasized in each of these traditions. But the structure of eliminating this basis level from giving rise to uncontrollably recurring rebirth – death, bardo, rebirth – it’s the same. It’s just a different framework of how this subtlest level gives rise to ordinary appearance and to pure appearance.

Now when we visualize ourselves as this Buddha-figure with all these figures in the mandala, we are all of them. We’re not just the main figure. The “me” is labeled on all of them. We are this whole assembly of figures. So even if we are a couple – visualizing a couple – we’re both of them. Now of course that gets into a lot of technical detail of what is your point of view as you’re visualizing yourself as all of these. That type of instruction one needs to get from one’s own tantric master, of how you actually do this. 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. So we’re the whole thing, just like we are in our ordinary form with the digestive system, the circulatory system, the arms, the legs, etc. All integrated.

Once we’ve set up this visualization and you recite what everybody looks like – and in some practices there are also various figures inside the body of the deities – then we imagine what’s called the deep awareness beings dissolving into our visualized beings. And it’s a misconception to think that those are the real ones and these are the imaginary ones; that’s not quite the way that it is explained. But it’s a type of visualization or practice that gets us into the custom of bringing in the various energy winds into the central channel so that our generation as this figure becomes stable. Then we imagine that again we take the full empowerment. And that can be done in an abbreviated form; some practices, it’s done in a very full form.

And at various times 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. And of course when we imagine taking the empowerment again, you make offerings to the empowering deities. There’s lots of offerings made.

And then there are various meditation practices to stabilize our visualization – so we’re no longer reciting anything now – so that we get more and more concentration, with more and more details, to help us get more stabilization on the whole thing. So there are many different types of practices that are done there.

And then there’s the mantra recitation. And there are mantras for – if it’s a multi-figure mandala – there are mantras for all the figures. If the mandala has many figures, you say a different mantra for each figure. And some of them have more. The main figure usually has at least three mantras; usually three. And many visualizations that are done while we recite the mantras. Within the body, especially of the main figure, we’re going to have different syllables and different chakras, etc. All this is going to help us to eventually gain access to the subtle energy system. So we visualize various syllables. We visualize lights going out, giving offerings to the Buddhas. Lights going out, removing the suffering from all beings and giving them all happiness. Lots and lots of visualizations that can be done while we do the mantras.

And during all these procedures that have come before this, we have various mudras (different hand gestures that you make), and sometimes ringing a bell. There are many different ritual type of things that are done to also engage the body. So we’re doing something with the body, the speech, and the mind simultaneously.

Then, after the mantra recitation, there is Vajrasattva mantra done once or three times to purify any mistakes we might have made. And more offerings to ourselves. And then we get the concluding parts; that often will include offering a torma (gtor-ma) – this is like a cake – which is made in order to also get rid of interferences and make closer connections. So we have the purification – the transformation – of the torma again, like what we had with the offerings in the beginning. Torma can be offered to the gurus, it can be offered to the Buddhas, it can be offered to us. Very often, we call in various protectors; tormas are offered to them.

And then, after all these torma offerings – and you also offer them outer offerings and inner offerings – then, after all of this, then we send these guests back. We imagine that they go back to wherever they live. And then – we’ve been in the full form of the deity up to now – then we have another transformation back to the simple form of the deity.

And then there’s a recitation of a very long prayer. Each verse is covering a different stage of the practice. So you review the whole practice, starting with the sutra basics, all the way through all the stages of the tantra practice of that particular practice. And then, at the end, what is known as the verses for auspiciousness, which is basically a type of dedication. You know: may everything be auspicious; may everything go well for the practices; for all practitioners, for everybody to reach enlightenment; etc.

So this is the basic sadhana practice. And different deities, and different lineages of the deities, will have different sadhanas, but they all follow basically the same structure. So when we have these short little sadhanas, these abbreviated forms, all of these fuller aspects are packed into it. And if you’re really doing it properly when you do the abbreviated form, you fill in all these things. And the more familiar we are with these practices, obviously we can do them more effectively, more quickly. And because they’re so complicated, it will take a whole lifetime to be able to do it really properly. 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?

Yes, it is possible do this type of practice while walking around. In fact, that’s what we’re supposed to try to be doing. We’re supposed to try to be doing this all the time. So even if we’re not able to do a 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),” he said – a “daggye” is a self-generation, a “kaggye” is sort of the generation of our words – so the main point is not reciting the ritual with all the words, but 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 this mental hold, the mental glue to hold onto it – all the time, as much as possible, which of course is very challenging. But in moments when we can be mindful, let’s say if we’re going for a walk or something like that, 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 we’re exerting these four types of enlightening influence on everyone around us.

It’s perfectly good and valuable tantra practice. So even if we’re not able to do a ritual 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 bring us joy, to help bring joy to the mind. And if they become a burden, so that they become a 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 and we need to check up with somebody, or check up 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, “Ah, I have to do it exactly like this, every single day, regardless.” Remember, skillful means, readopt, reflow to what’s going on. If you’re going to be on a long plane ride, or a long train ride, or a long bus ride, or you drive for a huge amount of time, well, you adjust accordingly when you have to. Or you’re visiting your parents, or people are visiting you, you adjust accordingly, but 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 will be either an instantaneous generation, in which instantaneously there are all thirty-two figures, or all sixty-two figures, or all whatever number of figures it might be, all at once, and then there are others in which you first generate yourself as the, it’s usually the male of a couple, and then you progressively visualize the next, the female. And then often there are practices in which you imagine all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas come into you and go down the central channel of the male and enter into the womb of the female, and then everything is generated there, and then sent out from the womb to the rest of the mandala, in analogy to the whole process of birth, to purifying the whole birth process. There are those ways of generating, or there’s just generating one by one – so, several different styles.

There’s always the issue how many Buddha-figures to involve ourselves with. Some people want to just practice one. The joke was with the Tibetans that, “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.” So 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.

As we were discussing earlier in the week, the different Buddha-figure systems can supplement each other, because one will have more detail on one aspect of practice, one will have more detail on another, and so we get a much fuller picture with several of these systems. Also, if we want to be able to benefit and help others, we need to know many different systems to be able to teach them, and answer questions, and these sort of things. But in terms of a more pragmatic level of them in our daily activities, it’s nice to have, what we call “a bag of tricks” that you can use, that “Sometimes I need the Manjushri image, sometimes I need a Chenrezig image, sometimes I need the Tara image,” depending on the situation, what’s appropriate, what’s helpful.

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

When I used to translate for Serkong Rinpoche, 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 a very good training, because we can always do a little bit more when our mind is set. “I can’t take it. I can’t do anything more.” – you can always do a little bit more, but of course you don’t try to do too much more, because then that’s destructive to ourselves, and you don’t get anything done. So then, within that context, like in Kalachakra, “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, like Guhyasamaja, you actually are working with “This part of the building is corresponding to this part of the body,” as an actual point in which one is conscious of this being the building as well. In other practices, I’ve not come across that being explicitly discussed, but in any case, the closest analogy that I can think of is that of the skin. In a sense it’s a container of all the various systems within the body, but we would label “me” on the skin as well, so it’s both.

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

One has to loosen the mind in terms of not grasping at, “Well, that’s a building.” It is in many ways a symbol; it’s representing something. And you have to work in terms of all the different things that it represents. If you want to have twenty-four things simultaneously “in our minds,” we would say in the West, if you want to be mindful of twenty-four things, which means a mental hold on twenty-four things, well, that’s difficult to do abstractly. If you actually represent that graphically, of twenty-four arms that have a hold on twenty-four things, it’s easier to do that simultaneously, to have all those realizations simultaneously. It’s just a method. Similarly, the building is representing this as well, the four gateways representing the four placements of close mindfulness, that sort of stuff. So one has 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. So if we’re angry, then there are many, many different levels of opponents that we can use – in terms of practice of patience, and the stuff that Shantideva teaches in his text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior about the causes of anger and what is it that’s annoying me. We can also go in terms of the understanding of voidness, in terms of self and who’s getting angry and these type of things and suffering in terms of it – many, many approaches to that – what is it arising from, in terms of negative actions. You can think in terms of burning things off, purification, you can think, in terms of compassion, of other people’s suffering. You can do tonglen, the giving and taking practice. There are many, many ways to transform and work with the 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, when we are having disturbing emotions. Also, these visualizations are a way of protecting ourselves, in the sense that 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 – that’s not specifically tantra, by any means, we can do that in sutra as well – but one of the ways that’s very helpful is that – out of the personal experience of spending an awful lot of time in the presence of my spiritual teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, in his company – in his company I would never act like a jerk, like an idiot. 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 Ling Rinpoche, in his past life the Senior Tutor of His Holiness, and we we’re sitting catty-corner to each other, cross-legged on these low Tibetan sort of like a bed type of thing, a platform with a rug on it, and there was a big scorpion on the floor, that appeared on the floor between us. And Ling Rinpoche did 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?” And I looked back at him and I said, “How could I possibly be afraid in your presence?” Because he was really like a Yamantaka, how could I possibly be afraid in the presence of Yamantaka? And he laughed and laughed. And 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 he had sort of almost materialized the scorpion as a little bit of a challenge. But like that, I couldn’t possibly freak out – with a scorpion on the floor – sitting in front of him, because of my respect for him.

Likewise, when we are visualizing the guru with us all day long, that we’re in the presence, it helps us to not act like a jerk. Similarly, if we are imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure, that also can 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. These Buddha-figures don’t freak out, and don’t act like idiots, and don’t get angry, and don’t get upset. So it helps us with self-esteem, which is very helpful as a preventive for getting angry or upset.

Suffering is one thing in terms of feeling pain, the other is how we respond to it. Pain is, after all, just a physical sensation. It’s just the arising of an appearance and a feeling of it. It’s nothing more, it’s no big deal. It may be difficult, but if one looks in terms of the mental activity, it’s no big deal. I do that in the sensitivity training – I have this book and course Developing Balanced Sensitivity – and one of the exercises, one little part of it, is to tickle your palm, and then pinch your palm really hard, and then just hold your hand, and what’s the difference in terms of the mental activity? It’s just the arising of a sensation and the feeling of a sensation. It’s nothing more. It’s no big deal.

If you can train yourself with that, then what’s the difference between that and a mental level of feeling happy, or unhappy, or neutral? It’s the same. So it’s how you respond to the suffering that really is essential, and again, you’re sitting there in class and pinching your palm – you don’t scream out, “Ouch!” and freak out. Although my students weren’t brave enough to pinch each other’s palm and do the exercise, that would be more effective. An advanced level: tickle each other’s palm and pinch it, see whether you can do the same exercise.

[See: Balanced Sensitivity: Unblocking Our Feelings]

Original Audio from the Seminar