What Is Guhyasamaja Practice?

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I’ve been asked to speak about the Guhyasamaja system of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga.

My Background in Guhyasamaja 

Let me begin by telling you a little bit of the history of my own involvement with it. I first started studying the Guhyasamaja system in 1968, when I was at Harvard University as a graduate student. At that time, we had a class in which we were reading the first chapter of Guhyasamaja, comparing the Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese versions. My friend Bob Thurman was in the class with me; we were schoolmates together at Harvard. I was very drawn to the system – I liked it very much – although we had no idea of what it really meant or what was involved. We were primarily looking at the way that it was translated. 

My professor, Dr. Nagatomi, a Japanese professor, suggested that I study and write about the Guhyasamaja system for my doctorate dissertation. I received a Fulbright fellowship in 1969 to go to India to study Guhyasamaja with the Tibetans, but I had only studied the written Tibetan language. I didn’t know the spoken language. There were no textbooks at that time, so like an anthropologist, I had to figure out the sound structure and learn the spoken language once I got to India.

I met Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche in January of 1970 – he eventually became my main teacher along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama – and I asked his advice about whom I could study this system with, although I was obviously totally unqualified to study this. He suggested that I study it with one of the retired abbots of Lower Tantric College because he was living in Dalhousie, where I was staying at the very beginning of my stay in India. However, he was doing a three-year retreat at the time, and Serkong Rinpoche said, “He’ll finish in May, so you can go see him in May when he gets out of retreat.” This suited me very well because I needed to get my spoken Tibetan up to the level at which I could actually study with him.

Meanwhile, I received the empowerment from Ling Rinpoche, His Holiness’s senior tutor. I think I received it before I asked the retired abbot to teach me. I don’t remember exactly. Maybe it was a little bit afterward, but it was together at that time. In any case, I went to see the abbot when he got out of retreat, and he said, “It’s wonderful that you would like to study this. After a week, I’m going to go into my next three-year retreat, and this will be on Guhyasamaja. Would you like to join me in this three-year retreat?” I realized that this was way over my head, and I said, “No, I need to prepare myself more,” which was obviously what Serkong Rinpoche knew would happen, which is why he sent me to this abbot. Then, I went to see Trijang Rinpoche, the late junior tutor of His Holiness, and he suggested, “Why don’t you study lam-rim?” That was before anything was translated into Western languages, before Jewel Ornament or anything like that. So, I decided that I would change my dissertation topic to the oral tradition of lam-rim instead of Guhyasamaja and put off my studies of it till later.

Actually, now I remember more precisely. It was after that that I received the Guhyasamaja initiation for the first time. This was a wonderful occasion. It was in September 1971, actually, and it was the last time that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the disciple, the main disciple, for receiving the three major initiations – Trijang Rinpoche gave the Chakrasamvara initiation, and Ling Rinpoche gave Guhyasamaja and Yamantaka. This was quite a special occasion.

After that, I’ve received the initiation quite a few times from His Holiness and received several discourses by His Holiness on the Guhyasamaja generation stage – I’m not sure which text that was based on – and His Holiness’s discourse on Tsongkhapa’s text on the five-stage complete stage of Guhyasamaja, A Lamp for Clarifying the Five Stages (Rim-lnga gsal-sgron). Also, I studied Guhyasamaja quite extensively with Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, who was the so-called assistant tutor of His Holiness. With him, I studied four different texts on the generation stage, Tsongkhapa’s text on the complete stage, and Gyu Sherab Sengge’s commentary, An Extensive Explanation of “Illuminating Lamp” (sGron-gsal rgya-cher bshad-pa) on the first chapter of the Guhyasamaja Root Tantra (gSang-ba ’dus-pa rtsa-rgyud).

I’ve been involved with this system more or less for quite a long time; it’s a very, very extensive system with a tremendous amount of literature. Tsongkhapa considered this to be the main tantra, and he wrote the most about it. Five volumes of his collected works are his commentaries on Guhyasamaja.

The History of Guhyasamaja 

Where does this tantra come from? Some scholars, Western scholars, say that it first appeared in the early 8th century. The first reference to it in the literature is in a text by a Sogdian monk. His name was Amoghavajra, and he was a translator from Sanskrit into Chinese. He lists 18 texts in Chinese, and Guhyasamaja was one of them. So it must have already been translated into Chinese by that time. He wrote that in the mid-8th century. Sogdians were the main merchants of the Silk Route, and they did a lot of translating into Chinese. Sogdia is what is currently Uzbekistan.

We have different versions now of the history of this tantra. There is the Western scholars’ version and the traditional Buddhist version. The traditional version is that Buddha manifested as Vajradhara and taught the Guhyasamaja system to King Indrabhuti, who was King of Oddiyana – Ogyen (U-rgyan) in Tibetan – which is the same place where Guru Rinpoche came from much later.

How do we approach this as Westerners? Because then, from Indrabhuti, there are many different lineages. And not only from Indrabhuti, but if we look at the lineages, there is a lineage of the root tantra – this is the one from Indrabhuti – there is a lineage of the initiation, and there is a lineage of the generation stage and sadhana. In the lineage prayer for Guhyasamaja in the sadhana, the lineage traces from Vajradhara to a manifestation of Manjushri to Nagarjuna, so a completely different time in history. Then, there is a lineage of the complete stage as well. So, what is this?

First, we have to really divest our view of history from our Western biblical traditions. It’s not that Buddha, like God, revealed the truth to Moses or to Muhammad as the prophet, and now we have the word of God, and so this is the word of Buddha, as Vajradhara, being passed down to the masses. It’s not like that. Coming from our Western traditions, it’s very easy to think of this type of revelation, as it were, from Vajradhara, according to that analogy of biblical revelations. What does that type of overlay lead to? It leads to a very sectarian view – that this is the highest, this is the best, this is the real truth, the final truth.

However, it’s not like that in Indian traditions, whether we speak in terms of Buddhism or Hinduism. Their view of history is very different. Our view of history tends to be linear and based on objective facts and records, whereas an Indian view of history is very much mixed with myth, what we would call myth. From an Indian point of view, Krishna sporting with the cow maidens and so on is as real as King Ashoka. To Indians, when we look at history, it’s supposed to illustrate something, teach us something, not just record facts. This is the case not just with the tantras, but even also with the Mahayana sutras. 

In the traditional lineages, many great masters either received direct teachings from Vajradhara in various manifestations, or Buddha taught to somebody who then gave it to the nagas and then it’s returned, or someone going up to Tushita heaven and getting teachings from Maitreya, these sorts of things. The Buddhist stuff is filled with that – Mahayana and, within Mahayana, tantra.

Vajradhara, as a tantra form of Buddha, is a manifestation of the clear-light mind that we all have. Within an Indian context, we all the ability to understand the truth – ways that will lead to liberation and enlightenment. We all have that ability because we all have clear-light minds, so anybody who has that type of revelation or understanding is receiving this from Buddha Vajradhara because Buddha Vajradhara is not a historical figure from our objective Western point of view of history. The person who receives that revelation first and passes it down is not some sort of final prophet or anything like that. They are an object of reverence and respect, of course, but not in the same way as Jesus Christ or Muhammad.

I think this is important to understand when we look at tantra systems like Guhyasamaja, and we look at this amazing maze of lineages that come from it, and we count the figures in the lineage and it doesn’t add up. There are too few figures and too much of a gap in history. His Holiness says it very nicely when people question the traditional Buddhist presentation that the tantra material, like the Mahayana material, was passed down orally in a secret fashion until it was finally written down and made more public. His Holiness says, “If our reason for doubting that is simply, ‘I don’t think so,’ that’s not a valid reason; that doesn’t disprove anything.” 

Guhyasamaja as a Father Tantra 

In any case, Guhyasamaja is considered one of the oldest, if not the oldest, tantra system to surface in written form in India. Within the classification of tantra, the way that it’s classified in the so-called New Translation period (gSar-ma) is anuttarayoga tantra, which means that it’s dealing with the systems of the subtle body – chakras, channels, winds, these sorts of things – in order to gain access to the subtlest level of mental activity, the “clear-light mind,” and using that level of mental activity as the immediate cause for the Four Bodies of a Buddha.

Anuttarayoga tantra is divided into several classes, and we could do a whole historical survey of the different ways in which it has been divided and the reasons for classifying it in one way or another. In any case, the system that was started by Tsongkhapa divides anuttarayoga tantra into father and mother tantra (pha-rgyud and ma-rgyud). The basis that he uses for that division is that father tantra has the most detail about what’s called the illusory body (sgyu-lus) as the cause that will transform into the Form Bodies of a Buddha, and mother tantra puts emphasis on practices for attaining clear-light mind for the attainment of a Dharmakaya. From another point of view, father tantra has most emphasis on the various yogas dealing with the energy-winds for getting down to the clear-light subtlest level of mental activity, and mother tantra has a great deal of detail of how to work with increasing levels of blissful awareness generated within the central channel in order to get down to the clear-light mind with practices like tummo (gtum-mo), inner heat.

Guhyasamaja is the main system in father tantra. It has tremendous detail about how to work with the energy-winds within the chakras and channels in order to get down to the subtlest level and how to transform the subtlest level of energy-wind that is the mount of the clear-light mind to appear in the form of an illusory body, which will eventually be the immediate cause giving rise to a Form Body of a Buddha. If we divide the systems in general between method and discriminating awareness, so-called “method and wisdom,” Guhyasamaja puts more emphasis on the method side.

In the major system of Guhyasamaja that’s practiced in the Gelugpa tradition, there are 32 deities. Just as an example of the emphasis being on the method side: Within the sadhana that we practice on the first stage of practice, the generation stage (bskyed-rim), where we work with our imagination to visualize ourselves as a Buddha-figure, the method we practice for attaining a Form Body – a Corpus of Enlightening Forms – is imagining that we are emanating each of these 32 figures of the mandala, and each of them is helping others to eliminate one or another type of disturbing emotion or one or another type of interference. 

It’s a wonderful system for developing an appreciation within ourselves of the fact that we need to manifest in many, many different ways to help different people with their own individual problems. Being such an extensive system with such an extensive literature, it provides what’s known as the template for anuttarayoga tantra practice, both the generation stage and complete stage (rdzogs-rim). In other words, it gives the structure that is then followed in all the other anuttarayoga tantra systems.

The Meaning of the Name “Guhyasamaja” 

The name Guhyasamaja (gsang-ba ’dus-pa) means “the assembly of hidden or secret factors.” Guhya (gsang-ba) means “secret,” and samāja (dus pa) means an “assembly.” When we say the word secret, it’s not as though: “Ooh, you have to keep this secret!” That’s not the main flavor of the word. It means that it is naturally hidden or obscured to those who are not ready to be able to understand it. It is hidden because of the obscurity of its language, but also in terms of teaching it; we should keep it hidden from those who are not ready to understand it.

The assembly of these hidden factors can refer to all the deities within the system, or they can refer to the three main hidden factors, often called “the three vajras” – vajra body, vajra speech and vajra mind – referring to the enlightened or enlightening aspects of these three. There are two ways of referring to these three vajras: In one sense, our body, speech and mind have been developed to the enlightened stage. However, they are inspiring to others, so they are enlightening; they can help enlighten others.

The Lineages 

As for the texts themselves, the root tantra (gSang-ba ’dus-pa rtsa-rgyud), is in 17 chapters. Seven of the chapters were translated into Chinese by Danapala in the year 1002. However, the Guhyasamaja rituals and practice never really took off in China, so there isn’t really a tradition there, but the text – at least these seven chapters – was translated into Chinese. The root tantra was translated into Tibetan around the same time by the great translator Rinchen Zangpo working together with a Kashmiri pundit called Shraddhakaravarman.

There are six Guhyasamaja explanatory tantras (bshad-rgyud), but only five of them were translated into Tibetan. One of them, called the Guhyasamaja Appendix Tantra (gSang-ba ’dus-pa phyi-rgyud) is considered the 18th chapter of the root tantra. These explanatory tantras are on various aspects of the generation and complete stage, but written in a very, very obscure, hidden manner so that only in later Indian commentaries do we get the system for being able to decipher the language and the images with which these texts were written. These texts are filled with passages like “the vajra with the lotus,” and it’s just all images. As I learned trying to study the root tantra at Harvard in the three languages, these texts almost becomes meaningless if we have no idea what they’re really talking about, but it’s very intriguing.

There are four traditions of explaining the root tantra and the six explanatory tantras:

  • One by Aryadeva, who was a disciple of Nagarjuna
  • One by Jnanapada, whose full name was Buddhashrijnana
  • The third by Anandagarbha
  • The fourth by Shantipa.

The first two are considered the best. However, the major tradition that is usually studied is the Aryadeva tradition, sometimes abbreviated as the Arya tradition (phags-lugs), and here there is a large amount of literature that was written in India in Sanskrit. Interestingly, the major authors in it have the name of the major Madhyamaka authors:

  • Nagarjuna – three texts: two on the generation stage, and one on the complete stage, although he didn’t actually finish the one on the complete stage
  • Aryadeva – two texts: one explaining the meaning of Nagarjuna’s text on the complete stage that Nagarjuna didn’t finish
  • Nagabodhi – three texts: another disciple of Nagarjuna
  • Shakyamitra – one text: which completed Nagarjuna’s text
  • Chandrakirti – three main texts: some commentaries on them form the major subject that is studied within the tantric colleges
  • Rahulamitra – one text
  • Naropa – two texts.

Again, there is a problem with history. The tradition considers Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and Chandrakirti as the same authors who wrote the most famous Madhyamaka texts. From the Western scholarship point of view, that doesn’t make sense, so Western scholars say that these were much later authors who, in order to legitimize what they wrote, chose the names of these great Madhyamaka masters. As I tried to indicate before, the Western scholars’ view of history is very different here from the Indo-Tibetan worldview, so it is irrelevant whether they’re the same persons or not because the main point to learn from the lineage is that the understanding and explanation of Guhyasamaja is within the context of the Madhyamaka view of reality. It’s the same point as is made by the traditional version of Buddha teaching the Prajnaparamita Sutras on Vultures Peak and simultaneously appearing as Kalachakra in South India and teaching the four classes of tantra from the four faces of Kalachakra. The point is that the tantra systems need to be understood and practiced within the context of the Madhyamaka teachings on voidness.

In Tibet, the tradition for explaining the root tantra and the five explanatory tantras translated into Tibetan is traced from Gö Lotsawa (Gos Lo-tsa-ba). The tradition for explaining the guideline teachings of the practice is traced from Marpa, so there’s a great tradition of Guhyasamaja practice within the Kagyu line. We shouldn’t think that this is exclusively a Gelugpa practice; it’s certainly not.

The Gelug tradition follows both of these lineages, the one from Gö Lotsawa and the one from Marpa. Of the three forms of Guhyasamaja practice, the main one practiced in the Gelugpa tradition has Akshobhya as the main figure. Within that tradition, within the literature, Akshobhya sometimes is called Vajradhara, and sometimes called Vajrasattva. Remember, I told you this is the template. It gives the structure for all anuttarayoga tantra. This is the system with 32 deities, and it’s the lineage that comes through Marpa from Tilopa and Naropa.

Then, there are two other forms of Guhyasamaja. One is called Jamdor (Jam-dor), and that has Manjuvajra – that’s a form of Manjushri – as the central figure, and in its mandala, there are 19 deities. Then, there’s a third form called Jigten Wangchug (Jig-rten dbang-phyug), and that has a form of Avalokiteshvara as the central figure. Those two lineages come through Gö Lotsawa. I don’t have any information about the Jigten Wangchug form of it. Serkong Rinpoche did the retreat for that form of Guhyasamaja just before he died, and it was only a few days after that that he actually passed away, so I never had a chance to ask him about it.

As I said, five of the 18 volumes of Tsongkhapa’s collected works are on Guhyasamaja, so it’s the main thing that he wrote about, or the thing that he wrote the most about, I should say. It’s the major anuttarayoga tantra in the Gelug system and the main topic studied in the tantric colleges.

Just to indicate how it is a template for the practices, the Six-Session Guru Yoga (Thun-drug-gi rnal-’byor) – which is a practice formulated by the Fourth Panchen Lama for being able to keep the samayas, the close bonds, from anuttarayoga tantra practice – has as the Buddha-figure before us, Vajradhara, and then we transform into Vajrasattva. This is according to the Guhyasamaja system. These are both blue figures as in the Guhyasamaja practice. They’re not the white Vajrasattva for purification. That’s the standard form. Then, if we want to do this practice in a more specialized form, we can substitute the main figures from a different anuttarayoga practice, like Kalachakra or Yamantaka. It doesn’t make any difference; it’s the template. The body mandalas that are found in the Lama Chopa (Bla-ma mchod-pa, The Guru Puja) and in the practice called The Inseparable Spiritual Master and Avalokiteshvara are the body mandala of Guhyasamaja. So, we find Guhyasamaja popping up in all sorts of places within at least the Gelug tradition.

The Eight-Stage Dissolution Process 

What’s so fantastic about this system? What does it offering us that’s so special? One of the main things that we find is tremendous detail about what is the central practice of anuttarayoga tantra, which is the transformation of death, bardo and rebirth. This is the source of the material about the eight-stage process of dissolution when we die.

When we talk about mind in Buddhism, we’re talking about mental activity. We’re talking about the subjective individual experiencing of validly knowable phenomena. If we think in terms of experiencing, I think that helps us get a little bit closer than just thinking of the word mind, which makes us think of a physical object. It’s not a physical object. We’re talking about the subjective experiencing of things that we could know, some content. There’s always a physical basis for this subjective experiencing. We can describe an event, a cognitive event, from the point of view of experiencing or from the point of view of the physical phenomena that are involved, the energy and so on. The two are not contradictory.

There are many levels of mental activity, and each level of subtlety of the mental activity is directly related to the level of subtlety or grossness of the physical basis. As we die, and similarly when we fall asleep, the consciousness withdraws from having as its basis the grosser aspects of the body.

  • First, the earth element can no longer support mental activity, so the solid aspect of the body can no longer support it
  • Then the water element, which is referring to the liquid parts of the body
  • Then the fire element, so the heat aspects of the body can no longer support mental activity.
  • Then wind, which is referring to not only gas but also more like an energy level, a subtle level but not the subtlest level of energy. 

The mental activity or consciousness is withdrawing – in other words, it has less and less of a solid basis or foundation – and eventually, we get down to the clear-light level. Guhyasamaja presents tremendous detail about this process, usually referred to as the “dissolution process.”

Complete Stage Practice

We want to undergo this dissolution process in meditation on the second stage of anuttarayoga practice, the complete stage, so that we actually access that subtlest level, the clear-light level, without dying. Then, we want to use it because it’s the most efficient level for gaining the non-conceptual, omniscient, simultaneous cognition of the two truths. How is that possible that it can be used in that way?

This clear-light mind is automatically non-conceptual. It’s more subtle than all the conceptual levels of mind, and it’s on this level that the two truths about all phenomena – their voidness and their appearance, but without their false appearance of having self-established existence – can manifest simultaneously. The clear-light mind does this by non-conceptually cognizing simultaneously the voidness of the two truths of everything, which entails the omniscient cognition of the basis for these voidnesses – all phenomena and their voidness. It is able to do this because, by nature, it is not obscured by either the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) or the cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib). 

The clear-light mind does not have grasping for self-established existence – it doesn’t fabricate an appearance of self-established existence and doesn’t cognize one, let alone take such a false appearance to correspond to reality – so it’s more subtle than that. It’s not enlightened yet, and it doesn’t automatically understand voidness, but it’s the most efficient level of mental activity with which to gain that realization, provided we’ve built up tremendous habits beforehand through sutra practice. Guhyasamaja gives all the detail for how to attain that level by working with the energy-winds and, in a sense, dissolving these winds so that we get the mental activity to no longer ride on them.

As preparation for this complete stage practice, we imagine, on the generation stage, coming down to the clear-light level through the eight-step dissolution process, and we apply a conceptual cognition of voidness. We apply that while imagining our mind is on that clear-light level.

That’s conceptual?

Sure, it’s conceptual. The imagination is conceptual.

Then, from the subtlest wind or energy of that clear-light level, instead of attaining bardo after death, we imagine that we attain Sambhogakaya, so a Form Body of a Buddha that can teach arya bodhisattvas. Then, we imagine arising in a full form as a substitute for taking rebirth, which will then be like attaining a Nirmanakaya.

So, that’s the template, the major structure of all anuttarayoga practice.

One further point about the term “complete stage” (rdzogs-rim), the second stage practice. Sometimes people translate the first word in it, rdzogs, as completion. That’s not the meaning. The meaning of the word is “complete.” Everything is now complete for being able to actually undergo this process for real with the energy system, to actually get down to that subtlest level by working with the energy system, not just in our imagination.

Generation Stage Practice

If we want to practice the dissolution process, Guhyasamaja presents the most detail on it with the generation stage practices. The generation stage is when we generate or simulate not only the mandala and the deities, but all the various aspects of the practice with our imagination. 

There are 20 gross features (rags-pa nyi-shu) to be purified by this generation stage. We imagine that our consciousness withdraws in stages from having their ordinary forms as its basis and then, within the cognition of voidness, we regenerate them in the form of various deities in the mandala. These 20 gross features are: 

  • The five aggregates
  • The four elements of the body
  • The six cognitive sensors – the photosensitive cells of the eyes, the sound-sensitive of the ears, and so on
  • The five sense objects – sights, sounds, etc.

That makes 20. Sometimes 25 are mentioned, in which case we add the basis level of the five types of deep awareness – mirror-like, equalizing, and so on.

Each of these is represented by a figure in the mandala. There is one assembly of them arranged externally within the mandala palace. Then, within the body of the central male figure, there is a second arrangement of all these figures in what is called “the body mandala.” At one point in the sadhana there are 31 deities within the body mandala, and at another time 32. At one point in the sadhana, there is even an additional set of 32 within the body of the central female figure as well.

At one point in the sadhana, we bring each of the figures, one by one, into the body of the main male figure to form the body mandala. Then when we simulate the actual dissolution process, we imagine clusters of these figures dissolving into our heart as this main figure. This mimics what happens during the death process when they fail to support the consciousness any longer and so the consciousness withdraws from taking them as its support. 

In the first four stages of this eight-stage process, there is an aggregate failing, an element failing, and one of the cognitive sensors and the objects of that cognitive sensor failing, as happens when we are dying or, on a grosser level, when we fall asleep. In the body mandala, there are various forceful figures on our limbs and so on, and two of them dissolve at each of these first four stages. During the last four stages of the dissolution, the consciousness progressively withdraws from various more subtle parts of the body as it gets more and more subtle, and we try to simulate that in our imagination. 

It’s very, very difficult and challenging to put that all together in our mind – and not just on the level of a visualization, but of what that would actually feel like. However, because there is such incredible detail, repeated visualization practice trains us to recognize what is happening during that death process, which we want to simulate not just in our imagination on the generation stage, but for real on the complete stage in our meditation.

Of course, to do a complete stage practice, we need the attainment of combined shamatha and vipashyana, the real thing, so absolutely perfect concentration. If we try to manipulate the energies in the body and work with them, and we don’t have that level of concentration, we’re in big, big trouble. We can mess up our energies very seriously.

There are many ways of developing vipashyana in anuttarayoga tantra. Unlike with the sutra methods, in anuttarayoga tantra shamatha and vipashyana are attained simultaneously with one practice. For instance, we could visualize a tiny drop at the upper or lower end of the central channel – in Guhyasamaja, it’s the lower end – and inside that drop, the entire 32-deity Guhyasamaja mandala, down to the detail of the white and black of their eyes. Then, while maintaining our visualization of one drop, we imagine it multiplies into two drops, they multiply into four, the four into eight and so on, with the full mandala in each of them. Then we draw them back in, in order. Even better, even more advanced and difficult, we imagine that inside the mandala in each drop, at the lower end of the central channel of the main male figure, there’s even a tinier drop, and inside that, there’s the complete mandala. We can go further and further and further down like this.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that: “Oh, I’m such a great practitioner. I can work with the chakras and the channels and so on.” Who are we kidding? This is unbelievably difficult and advanced because we need laser-like concentration to be able to successfully manipulate and move the energies within the channels of the subtle energy system. Otherwise, we can even go crazy because of messing up the energies. It’s what is done in microsurgery, doing surgery through a microscope and a robotic hand. We’re talking about this type of practice on the complete stage. Okay? I still have a lot that I’d like to explain. There are some incredible things in this system if we really study it in depth.

The Three Appearances

Now, in the process of the dissolution, after we have dissolved the four grosser levels of consciousness associated with the aggregates, elements, cognitive sensors and so on – namely, the five sensory types of consciousness – we then experience what are sometimes translated as the three appearances (snang-ba gsum) and then clear light. These three appearances are three progressively subtler conceptual mental consciousnesses. They are conceptual cognitions of self-established existence.

The terms involved here are very difficult to translate and really get the full flavor of what they are referring to. The word translated as appearance in Tibetan, snang-ba, is the Sanskrit word āloka. It has the connotation of something visibly appearing, but since these are conceptual minds, then in accordance with the definition of mind as an arising of an appearance and a cognitive engagement, they would mean the mental activity of giving rise to a conceptual appearance and cognizing it, so I translate them as “the three appearance-making conceptual minds.” They give rise to and cognize an appearance representing self-established existence, although there is, in fact, no such thing as self-established existence.

Being conceptual minds, the appearances they give rise to represent self-established existence in the form of a colored light. Although these minds grasp these appearances in the sense that they cognize them, they do not grasp them in the sense of grasping for them to correspond to actual self-established existence. The appearances they give rise to are not the coarse appearances of self-established existence that coarser levels of conceptual and non-conceptual minds (other than those cognizing voidness) give rise to in the form of physical objects appearing to be self-established. Those coarser levels of mind dissolved when they withdrew from the sensory cognitive sensors and the elements that make up physical objects. These three appearance-making conceptual minds are the subtlest levels of conceptual minds and are progressively more and more crystal clear or transparent (dangs) and bare or stark (stong sang-nge-ba). The appearance of self-established existence they give rise to, obscuring the clear-light level, is progressively thinner and more transparent with each of them as they are getting progressively closer to the clear-light level, which doesn’t make an appearance of self-established existence. 

Further, since each of these conceptual minds in their progressive order is progressively subtler, that means that the energy-winds supporting these minds are progressively weaker in intensity and movement. 

These three occur not only in progressive order (lugs-’byung) during the dissolution process of going down into clear light, but also in reverse order (lugs-ldog) during the reversal process of coming out of clear light, which describes how we perpetuate samsara: normal death, bardo and then rebirth. The reversal order occurs with the attainment of a bardo body and, again, with the attainment of a rebirth body. They produce progressively denser appearances representing self-established existence. 

These three appearance-making conceptual minds, in their progressive order – progressing toward the clear-light level – are sometimes called “white appearance,” “red appearance” and “black appearance” after the color of the appearances they give rise to. Their actual names are usually translated with Jeffrey Hopkins’ terms as:

  • Appearance (snang-ba, Skt. āloka) – that’s the white one, so “white appearance.” It has the same name as the general name for the three appearance-making conceptual minds. 
  • Increase (mched-pa, Skt. ābhāsa) – that’s the red appearance, so “red increase.” The Tibetan term, mched-pa, means an “increase” or “spread,” however the original Sanskrit term, ābhāsa, has two meanings: a “brilliance” and a “semblance.” It is increased in its crystal clarity and starkness in comparison to the white appearance and is further resembling the clear-light level.
  • Near attainment (nyer-thob, Skt. upalabdha) – that’s the black appearance, so “black near attainment.” The Sanskrit term, upalabdha means “obtained.” This is the level of conceptual mind at which we have nearly obtained or reached the clear-light mind.

The black near attainment conceptual mind dissolves in two steps: first with mindfulness and then without mindfulness. Mindfulness (dran-pa) is like a mental glue. It is the mental factor that prevents the mind from losing its cognitive hold on its object. During the step without mindfulness immediately preceding the clear-light level, the mind can no longer keep its hold on cognizing its object – in this case, the appearance of self-established existence. Tsongkhapa explains that this does not mean, however, that we lose our mental hold on paying attention to any faults our state of mind might have. It also doesn’t mean we have gone unconscious.  

We experience something similar to the progressive sequence in the process of falling asleep, although we don’t go completely down to the actual definitional clear-light mind. What is it that appears when we are in deep sleep without dreams? It’s a darkness, like the black near attainment appearance. Just as we can focus on voidness during the phase with mindfulness during meditation on the advanced stages of complete stage practice, we can also focus on voidness during deep sleep without dreams. But that too is an extremely advanced practice.

The Undissipating Drops

When we speak about the mind, or mental activity, it is always an inseparable pair of a way of being aware of something and the energy-wind and, in some case, the elements, that are its physical support. For the clear-light subtlest mind, its physical support is the subtlest energy-wind. The inseparable pair of the clear-light subtlest mind and its supporting subtlest energy-wind are known as the undissipating drop (mi-shig-pa’i thig-le). This drop is only nominally a drop since it is not a form of physical phenomenon. It remains stable and continues from lifetime to lifetime, without disintegrating. During each lifetime as a human, it resides in the center of the heart chakra. 

It is crucial not to identify this undissipating drop with an atman, a self, as asserted by the various Indian non-Buddhist schools. The Buddhist assertion is that the self is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the inseparable pair that constitute this drop. An imputation phenomenon is one that cannot exist and cannot be known independently of its basis of imputation. It is neither identical with nor totally separate and different from its basis.

There is another set of undissipating drops that remains stable, but only during our lifetime as a human. These are the white constituent source (khams dkar-po) and the red constituent source (khams dmar-po), also known as white bodhichitta (byang-sems dkar-po) and red bodhichitta. They are like sparks of creative energy received from our father and mother with their sperm and egg but are not the same as the sperm and egg. At conception, the stable undissipating drop takes as its grosser support the combined white and red bodhichittas. As the fetus develops, a piece of white bodhichitta rises up from the heart chakra and settles at the center of the forehead chakra and a piece of red bodhichitta descends from the heart chakra and settles at the center of the navel chakra. 

During the dissolution process, the white bodhichitta descends from the forehead chakra to the heart chakra at the stage of the white appearance, giving rise to the appearance of white. The red bodhichitta ascends from the navel chakra to the heart chakra at the stage of red increase, giving rise to the appearance of red. The two drops join at the heart chakra, enclosing the undissipating drop at the stage of black near attainment, giving rise to the appearance of black. The two bodhichitta drops dissipate completely at the stage of clear light, when the joined pair of clear-light subtlest mind and subtlest energy-wind, constituting the undissipating drop, no longer have a grosser physical support.

As conceptual cognitions, the three appearance-making minds have an object category (don-spyi) as their appearing object (snang-yul) – the object category self-established existence. Since categories are static phenomena lacking any form, there needs to be a mental form that appears representing self-established existence in each of these conceptual cognitions. What represents it is an appearance of white, an appearance of red, and an appearance of black, in accord with the white bodhichitta, red bodhichitta and joined bodhichittas that are their physical supports. The white is like the color of moonlight reflecting on fresh snow. The red is like the glow of the horizon at sunrise or sunset. The black is like the color of the night sky without sunlight or moonlight. 

The 80 Indicative, Universally Occurring, Subtle Conceptual Minds

After the first four steps of the dissolution, when the consciousness has withdrawn from the gross elements of the body and the senses and before four steps of the three appearance-making conceptual minds and clear light, there is an intermediate step, which is not counted as one of the eight. Here is where the 80 indicative, universally occurring, subtle conceptual minds (rang-bzhin kun-rtog brgyad-cu) dissolve. These are primitive levels of conceptual activity, one of the more mysterious and fascinating aspects of the teachings on how the mind works. Fantastic.

There are three levels of conceptual minds, each of which is cognition through the medium of a category:

  • The gross personal conceptual minds that cognize through the medium of categories such as “my house,” “my vacation,” and so on
  • The 80 indicative, universally occurring, subtle conceptual minds that cognize through the medium of categories such as “hunger,” “loving concern” and so on
  • The three appearance-making subtlest conceptual minds that cognize through the medium of the category “self-established existence.”

These 80 are divided into three groups: 33, 40 and nine. They are indicative of the white, red and black appearance-making minds. The group of 33 is indicative of the white, the group of 44 is indicative of the red, and the group of 9 is indictive of the black. What does it mean that they’re indicative? It means that the fact that each of these three has a different level of intensity of the movement of the energy-winds in the channels of the subtle body is indicative of the fact that these three appearance-making minds also have three different levels of intensity of movement of the energy-winds. In other words, the defining characteristic of having three levels of intensity of the movement of the energy-winds is the same in both. The intensity of the movement of the energy-winds is really important. If we become very sensitive, we can feel their movement. When the mind is filled with disturbing emotions and disturbing thoughts, the energy-wind that supports these emotions and thoughts is likewise disturbed, and we can sense that disturbance in the form of nervous energy. 

We’re talking here about conceptual cognitions that everybody has. They underlie our grosser minds. These 80 include conceptual minds that cognize through the categories of various positive and negative emotions, like loving concern, hatred, fear, laziness and boredom. They also include the conceptual minds that cognize through the categories of desiring to do various actions, such as sucking, embracing, and gathering possessions. They even include the conceptual minds that cognize through such categories as hunger, thirst, sorrow, and joy.       

We don’t need to learn these categories, like we need to learn the audio categories of words. Our mental activity gives rise to these universally occurring conceptual minds instinctively with each samsaric rebirth that we take, although it is unclear that all are manifest in each rebirth state. It’s our personal gross concepts that we have to learn. We have to learn who our mother is or what our house looks like. We don’t have to learn the concept of hunger, the desire for food.

These types of primitive conceptual minds are not talking about the rough conceptual mental activity involved each time we experience instances of similar emotions and cognize them all as belong in the same category of emotion. Every time that we experience fear, we are able to identify, “Now I’m afraid,” through the object category “fear.” These 80 are not talking about that level of conceptual cognition, or the level at which we recognize that we’re hungry each time we experience a similar physical sensation in our stomach. How do we recognize that we’re hungry? It’s through a category, a concept of hunger, into which we fit each of these similar physical sensations when we experience them.  We’re talking about something more primitive than that.

I’m basing my understanding, my analysis, on Tsongkhapa’s explanation in A Lamp for Clarifying the Five Stages. There, he wrote that these subtle conceptual minds bring about the arising of individual instances of constructive, destructive or neutral karmic impulses involved in performing similar actions of body, speech or mind that all belong in the same general category. For instance, the subtle conceptual cognition of the category “hunger,” the desire for food, underlies the instinctive karmic impulse that arises – namely, the motion of the body eating something in response to the unpleasant physical sensation of an empty stomach. Otherwise, why would we think to eat something when we experience that physical sensation? The subtle conceptual cognition of the category “fear” underlies the instinctive karmic impulse of the motion of the body running away in response to the arising of a specific type of uneasy physical and mental state. The subtle conceptual cognition of desire for an object we don’t have underlies the arising of the instinctive karmic impulse of reaching out to take our coat, for instance, when we experience an uneasy feeling of lacking something. Elaborating on Tsongkhapa’s discussion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has explained that the energy-winds supporting these 80 are “winds of karma” (las-rlung), but it is unclear whether these are the same as the winds of karma asserted in the Kalachakra system or they are a different set of winds of karma.

We have to have a concept of hunger as the desire for food when we experience as unpleasant the physical sensation of an empty stomach in order for our bodily consciousness to instinctively engage the body in the motion of eating something to alleviate that discomfort. No one had to teach us that. No one had to teach the dog that either. 

Think about this. This is really very fascinating, more than fascinating, it’s fantastic. We’re talking about the concepts behind our instinctive behavior. In terms of samsaric life, there has to be in each individual an instinct to eat something in response to a certain unpleasant physical sensation that we conceptually cognize as fitting in the category “hunger.” Otherwise, why would we want to eat something when we feel such a physical sensation? A grosser level of conceptual mind is involved every time when we’re eating that we are able to conceptualize that “now I’m eating.” That’s a different level, a grosser level of conceptual cognition.

This primitive level of universally occurring conceptual minds explains not only how it is that we would instinctively eat something when we experience the physical sensation we conceptualize as hunger, but also how it is that we would instinctively run when we experience the emotion we conceptualize as fear in the face of danger and instinctively take care of our baby when we experience the emotion we conceptualize as loving concern. There has to be some primitive level of conceptual cognition that accounts for how eating, running from danger, and taking care of one’s young occur in almost all species. Of course, there are instances when we curb our instinctive responses to sensations and emotions and refrain from eating, or fight instead of run from danger, or neglect our young. But the urge to act instinctively usually arises before ignoring it. Think about it, though. If we didn’t have the primitive concept of hunger, we would never think to eat. Why would we eat? That is really a drag as a samsaric being that we have to eat all the time, isn’t it?

In this way, the Guhyasamaja system, with its commentaries and its enormous literature, opens up a vast world of material that helps us analyze what is going on with samsara, what is going on with how we operate, how we work. It’s fantastic. Even if we don’t get to the level where we’re actually able to simulate the dissolution process in meditation, still to learn about it is very, very helpful in being able to recognize what the whole process is that is perpetuating our samsaric suffering. 

The Six Alternatives and Four Modes 

So, our instinctive behavior is one aspect, one topic that’s discussed in great detail in Guhyasamaja. Another big topic found in the Guhyasamaja literature – which we don’t have time to explain, but I have quite a good article on it on my website – is the system called the “six alternatives and four modes” (mtha’-drug tshul-bzhi). This is the system of analysis of how all the generation stage and complete stage practices are derived from this incredibly obscure language, the so-called “vajra words,” of the root tantra.

[See: Explaining Vajra Expressions: 6 Alternatives & 4 Modes]

Words can have:

  1. Explicit meanings (drang-don
  2. Implicit meanings (nges-don)
  3. Metaphorical (dgongs-can
  4. Nonmetaphorical (dgongs-min)
  5. Conventional language (sgra ji-bzhin-pa
  6. Nonconventional language (sgra ji-bzhin-pa min-pa)

One word can be many of these, and it could have:

  1. A literal meaning (yig-don)
  2. A general, shared meaning (spyi-don)
  3. A hidden meaning (sbas-don)
  4. A final, ultimate meaning (mthar-thug don)

Also, one word or one expression could have many of these different levels simultaneously.

As I mentioned, I studied the textbook on the first chapter of the Guhyasamaja Root Tantra that’s used in the tantric colleges – I mean, they study all the chapters, I only studied the first chapter – which presents the derivation of entire Guhyasamaja practice from these words. It’s an extraordinary system.


This is a general overview of Guhyasamaja. I’ve only hit on some of the high points of it. There’s a lot more in it, so when we think of Guhyasamaja practice, we shouldn’t just think in terms of some set of rituals. It’s important to realize that this is a vast system that, as I said, offers the template for what is going on in general in anuttarayoga tantra practice on the generation stage and complete stage. It has extraordinary detail on the death, bardo and rebirth process, how to work with it, how to recognize what’s going on and how to transform it. Then, there’s the whole apparatus with which we can actually derive the meaning of the tantras from the obscured type of language in which there were written.

Questions and Answers 

That brings us to the end of this lecture. Perhaps you have one or two questions.

The Necessity of Generation Stage Practice, Differentiating Complete Stage Practice from Similar Hindu Systems 

As I understand it, the dzogrim (complete) stage is what actually brings the result of the path. There are many systems in India – for instance, shadanga yoga, six-branch yoga – which although not being Buddhist, also work with a dissolution process. What is the meaning, what is the aim, of using the kyerim generation stage? Does it have some different application?

First of all, yes, the six-branch yoga is a structure that is applied in many different systems, both Hindu and Buddhist, to describe what would be the equivalent of complete stage practices. In each of these systems, the specific practices of each of the six are quite different, but the name is the same.

The Buddhist versions of it that we find in Guhyasamaja, Kalachakra, and a few other tantra systems have, of course, the distinctive features of bodhichitta and the understanding of voidness. As it says repeatedly in every commentary, there’s no way that we can have any sort of success on the complete stage practice without the generation stage practice, and we can’t have success with generation stage practice unless we’ve received the initiation, and we can’t have success with the initiation unless we have done all the preliminaries before.

All the preliminaries are an initial cleansing of obstacles and hindrances and a building up of some positive force so that the initiation or empowerment can, in a sense, awaken and stimulate the Buddha-nature potentials to grow. Otherwise, they’re too obscured, and we’re not receptive. Then, on that basis, with the generation stage, we train with our imagination to build up the causes that will ripen – that’s the technical term – into success on the complete stage.

Not only do we build up more positive force and more deep understanding through working with the imagination on the generation stage, not only do we develop perfect single-minded concentration and a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana – all of which are indispensable for success on the complete stage with the six-branch yoga – but we also simulate in our imagination the process of how our minds withdraw from the various components of our bodies during the dissolution process at death. We do this as a training on the generation stage so that we’ll be able to recognize the stages of the dissolution process when we are ready and able to experience them in complete-stage practice. A facsimile these stages happens too quickly as we fall asleep – we usually have no idea what’s going on – so that we are unable to recognize them then and, without being able to recognize them, we won’t be able to work with them in complete stage meditation.

Think in terms of dzogchen practice, for example, to access rigpa, pure awareness inseparable from appearances, and to have it be both blissful and a deep awareness of voidness beyond words and concepts. Unless we have built up beforehand the causes through mahayoga practice of a sadhana, why would these automatically arising appearances that are inseparable from rigpa be in the form of the deities that will then form the basis for a Form Body of a Buddha? There has to be a reason, something built up for it to become like that. The same thing in terms of simulating blissful awareness during mahayoga practice so that rigpa will be a blissful awareness.

When we talk about the word ripen (smin-pa), it’s a very significant word. Ripen here means like a fruit that has to grow and ripen so that eventually it becomes completely ripe and it will be ready to eat. Success in the six-branch yoga is not going to happen without a cause. In the generation stage and even earlier, we start to build up the causes. It’s like an unripe fruit, and we add more and more and more to it through the practice so that it will mature and ripen into success on the six-branch yoga and eventually success in becoming a Buddha.

Vajra Breathing

Could you say a few words about the vajra breathing practice in the Guhyasamaja system?

Another system that Nagarjuna introduced in his Guhyasamaja commentaries is the five-stage complete stage practice. Vajra breathing (rdo-rjes bzlas-pa) – literally, vajra recitation –occurs on the second of these stages, what’s called “isolated speech” (ngag-dben).

This is another system compared to the six-branch yoga?

We can divide complete stage practice into a six-branch yoga. We can divide it into this five-stage practice. There’s a four-step way of dividing it as well. There are many different ways of cutting the pie.

With the first of the five stages, isolated body (lus-dben), what we are trying to do is basically to get the energy-winds of the senses to enter into the central channel. With vajra-breathing on the isolated speech stage, what we are doing is combining the breath with the sound of OM AH HUM. This is the more definitive level of mantra practice. We are working with the actual process of breathing in and out with OM AH HUM, which is a way of getting the energies together with the breath in the central channel to go down to the heart chakra. 

There are many variants of how we do this practice. We find it in many other tantra systems as well, but in each of them, one of the syllables OM AH HUM will be with the in-breath, one will be with the breath staying in the central channel, and one will be with the out-breath. It’s basically intended to start to bring the other energy-winds down to the heart chakra once we get the sensory energy-winds to enter the central channel. It’s not just reciting OM AH HUM in our minds while we’re breathing. It’s much more difficult.

The Abbreviated Sadhana

I think that most people here have a Guhyasamaja initiation. I think many people have problems doing the abbreviated sadhana, problems mostly associated with visualization of the deities. Could you talk just a little bit about the abbreviated sadhana and how you do it yourself – how much time does it take, and how to do it – so that it would fulfill our commitments and allow us not to break them through that process? So, a few words about the abbreviated sadhana.

That’s a very difficult question. Serkong Rinpoche said that the abbreviated sadhanas are for advanced practitioners and that we start with the very long ones. Only when we are very familiar with the very long ones can we then go to the more abbreviated ones and fill in what is abbreviated without having to recite everything that’s in the long sadhana. To just recite or practice an abbreviated sadhana without knowing what is abbreviated in it is not going to get us very far along the path. But if we work with the long sadhana, then eventually we can get to a point where we actually don’t need to recite anything, except mantras and maybe some praises. We just do the full practice by visualizing each step without having to recite all the words.

I must confess I’ve never practiced the abbreviated Guhyasamaja sadhana. I practiced the long one and then the medium one, and it takes a long time.

It’s just that we only have the abbreviated sadhana translated into Russian. That’s the problem.

Well, you need to get the longer ones translated.

What is the main essence of the sadhana? This is very important. It’s not an exercise in visualization. Don’t worry about what all the deities look like and what they’re holding and stuff like that because it’s unbelievably difficult to visualize all that detail. It’s almost impossible for beginners to be able to do it. The most problematic thing in sadhana practice is when we get stuck on the details of the visualization because we think that that’s the main thing.

Tsongkhapa says this very clearly. The main thing is to hold the pride of the deity (lha’i nga-rgyal) on the basis of Buddha-nature and so on, feeling that “me” is a valid imputation phenomenon on the basis of our not-yet-happening enlightenment, which is represented by what we visualize. As Tsongkhapa says in his Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra (Lam-gyi rim-pa mdo-tsam-du bstan-pa), to start with, we should just get the general form of the deity and the figures arising vaguely in our visualization and emphasize the feeling of our conventional “me” being an imputation phenomenon on this. Clarity of the details of the visualization will come automatically as our concentration improves – but obviously, we have to have memorized what it looks like.

The essence of the sadhana is the simulation of death, bardo and rebirth. That’s the main thing. We work in our imagination to rid ourselves of death, bardo and rebirth by transforming the structure for how these three arise into the parallel structure for how we arise as Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya. That’s called “taking death, bardo and rebirth as the pathway for Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya and Dharmakaya.” Within the abbreviated sadhana, we need to put our emphasis on those points, the feeling of already being what it is that we’re aiming to attain. 

That’s why bodhichitta is utterly essential for tantra practice. Bodhichitta is a mind that is focused on our not-yet-happening enlightenment, our individual enlightenment that we can attain on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors, but which has not yet happened. How do we represent this not-yet-attained enlightenment? We represent it by imagining that we’re in the form of a Buddha already. Our visualization of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and the pride of the deity that we hold with that must done in the context of our bodhichitta practice – we are intent on attaining this in order to be of best help to all others. All of our practice is for being able to benefit all beings.

All of this is on the basis of the renunciation – we renounce our ordinary appearance as a samsaric being – and the understanding of the voidness of this whole process. Because of the voidness of the mind – the mind doesn’t exist inherently tainted – it is possible to attain this not-yet-happening enlightened state. By understanding the voidness of the process of causality, then we understand how we can actually attain enlightenment and so we practice within that understanding. Otherwise, we’re never going to reach enlightenment. We just accomplish, as it says in the texts, being reborn as a ghost in the form of the deity that we imagine that we are. This is the essence of any length of sadhana that we’re doing.

Our time is up and so let’s end here with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this discussion, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everyone to achieve enlightenment, not just us – that’s how Shantideva makes his dedications – so it’s for everybody to achieve enlightenment, for the benefit of all.

Thank you.

Original Audio from the Seminar