Tantra: Basis, Path & Resultant Continuums

Understanding the Purpose of Tantra

I’d like to discuss how to practice tantra effectively. This is important for those of us who are already involved with tantra practice because we might not be engaging in those practices in the most effective manner, and in order to make our practice more effective, we need to know what to do. The first things that we need to know are, what actually is tantra? What is the aim of tantra, and how does it achieve that goal?

Well, the aim of tantra is to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha, like all other Mahayana practices, and we’re talking here about our own individual state of enlightenment. As in all Mahayana practices, we want to achieve that in order to be able to be of best help to everyone. Now, as for how are we going to attain that goal? We are certainly going to use all the methods that are presented in the sutra teachings, but in addition, we’re going to add some more methods to that. It’s very important never to think that sutra practice and tantra practice are two totally separate things, and that they don’t share anything in common. Everything that is in sutra practice is in tantra practice as well, although not everything in tantra practice can be found in sutra.

What helps us to understand what is actually going on in tantra is the actual word “tantra.” The word tantra has two meanings in Sanskrit. On one level, it means an everlasting continuum, so something that stretches on and on and on, forever. An extension of that meaning of stretching on and on and on is the second meaning, which is the strings of a loom on which to weave something.

Three Levels of Everlasting Continuum - Basis, Path and Resultant 

When we talk about an everlasting continuum, we have three levels of that. We have the basis level, path level and the resultant level. 

Basis Level

The basis level is referring to all the Buddha-nature factors; in other words, all the factors that will enable us to become a Buddha. These are qualities or aspects of our mental continuum; in other words, what goes on from moment to moment to moment, lifetime to lifetime, with no beginning and no end. That’s the basis, what we all have – all beings, not just humans, because in one lifetime, we may be reborn as a human, and in another lifetime, we may be reborn as an insect or any other type of life form with a mind. “Having a mind” implies here any form of life that acts on the basis of karmic impulses to do something with an intention – the wish to accomplish a specific goal. We’re not talking about plants or rocks or anything like that. In any case, that’s the basis: all these Buddha-nature factors. We’ll look more closely at them, but I want to first present the structure.

Path Level

The path level of tantra is referring to a type of practice that we can do in which the elements or aspects of it also have no beginning and no end, so as a continuum. Although on the basis we have all these qualities and aspects that will enable us to become a Buddha, they are not functioning at the Buddha level because there are various obscurations or obstacles that cloud them. These obscurations limit the ability of our Buddha-nature factors to function. We need a practice that is going to enable us to get rid of these obscurations, to get rid of these blocks, and strengthen these Buddha-nature aspects so that they’ll function fully. 

What would be the most efficient is to have a practice that is going to help us to purify away these difficulties, but a method that has some sort of continuity that’s always available. This is our practice with tantra. Again, we’ll look more closely at what actually that method is. 

Resultant Level

On the resultant level, what we want to attain or achieve is the enlightened state of a Buddha in which all these Buddha-nature qualities and aspects are functioning fully, and we want that to be a continuum that goes on forever.

Thus, tantra is basically a very efficient method for purifying away the obstacles that prevent our Buddha-nature aspects from functioning fully as a Buddha. That’s what tantra is all about on a very, very fundamental level.

Buddha-Nature Factors 

If we look at what these Buddha-nature factors are, there are a number of different ways of presenting them. One important presentation of them is that they refer to the two networks, sometimes called “the two collections.” We have a network of positive force, sometimes called “the collection of merit,” and we have a network of deep awareness, sometimes called “the collection of wisdom or insight,” something like that. What is that talking about? How can we have these with no beginning?

As sentient beings, which actually means limited beings, beings with a mind that is limited – limited not in the sense of being mentally deficient or something like that; it’s just not able to function fully with all its potentials – we all have a mental continuum, a mind. Now that mind – mental activity, moment to moment to moment – is able to know things. But that ability to know things is limited; it’s clouded over with what is called “unawareness,” or in some languages, it’s called “ignorance.” Basically, this means either we are just unaware, we don’t know cause and effect – you know, what’s the effect of our behavior – and we don’t know how we exist, how others exist, how everything exists because it’s not obvious, or we have an incorrect understanding of these.

We think, for instance, that if we yell at somebody, that somehow they’re going to do what we want them to do, and they’re going to like us – which obviously doesn’t always work – and that it’s going to make us happier. We don’t understand that treating somebody unkindly is going to just bring more unhappiness and problems for ourselves. Or we think if we exploit them, somehow we will be happier. Either we don’t know the result, or we know it in an inverted way. Or we think that we can pollute the environment, and it’s not going to have any effect. This is completely incorrect, isn’t it?

The same thing in terms of reality: we think that we can do something and it exists isolated all by itself. We don’t know – or we know incorrectly – that everything is interconnected, nothing exists in an isolated way. We have all sorts of disturbing emotions based on this unawareness. We have greed and attachment and lust: if we can just get something, it will make us happy. Then, anger and aversion: if we can get things away from us, it’ll make us happy; it’ll make us secure. Then, naivety: if we can just shut things out and don’t have to deal with things, as if they don’t exist, that will make us happy. On the basis of these disturbing emotions, we act in either destructive ways, or it could be even constructive ways, but behind the constructive ways, there’s naivety: “I’ll be nice to you so that you’ll love me, that I’ll feel needed,” or something like that.

Networks of Positive Force and Deep Awareness 

Acting compulsively in these ways is known as karmic behavior. It’s acting compulsively, compelled by karmic impulses, and it leaves karmic aftermath – it builds up karmic tendencies, karmic potentials, and constant karmic habits. From compulsively acting constructively, it builds up what I would call “positive force” or “positive potential.” That is usually translated as “merit.” From compulsively acting negatively, destructively, it builds up negative force, negative potential; that’s sometimes translated, unfortunately, as “sin.” But merit, sin, these don’t really give the proper connotation. We’re just talking about positive force and negative force, and positive potential and negative potential.

It’s positive force or positive potential to be able to experience our ordinary type of happiness in any rebirth state and, in addition, to be able to experience the so-called better or more fortunate types of rebirth – human, etc. The negative potential, the negative force, is a potential or force to experience unhappiness, pain, etc. in any rebirth and, in addition, rebirth in one of these worse realms, like an animal or a ghost. 

Now, obviously, in each rebirth state, we could have happiness and unhappiness. We all experience that sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re unhappy, and different levels of each; it doesn’t have to be intense, but we all experience that. That indicates that we all have some sort of positive force and some sort of negative force, or some positive potential and negative potential. What happens is that we have disturbing emotions as well – we already mentioned that – and these disturbing emotions are what are going to activate these potentials to bring about a next rebirth. Depending on what cluster of potentials is activated, we will experience a better rebirth with better circumstances or not such good circumstances, or a worse rebirth with better circumstances or not such good circumstances.

What is relevant here, in terms of our Buddha-nature factors, is positive force, the positive network. Since we have beginningless rebirth from beginningless time, all these positive forces network together. That’s why we call it a network; it’s not just a collection of things that are unconnected with each other. This network of positive force is a Buddha-nature factor because it can, if it’s dedicated with bodhichitta, give rise to the type of happiness that a Buddha has. It will contribute to that, I should say. In other words, we can build it up further in order to achieve the happiness of a Buddha. This positive force, when it’s activated by disturbing emotions, gives rise to our ordinary appearance in one of these better states of rebirth, say as a human. However, if it’s dedicated with bodhichitta and purified of the disturbing emotions, it can function as the cause giving rise to the pure body of a Buddha. So, this network of positive force is one of our Buddha-nature factors.

We also have this second network, a network of deep awareness. There are many levels of deep awareness that can be included here, but on the most basic level, it’s referring to the various ways in which the mind works – mental activity works – in any rebirth state. Without getting into technical detail, how does our mental activity work? It works with the five types of deep awareness. It’s able to take in information. It’s able to put some information together as fitting equally into categories so that it can understand things, like being able to see two things equally as being food, for example. Even a worm can do that. The ability to know things individually; I can know this bottle of water individually, within everything that I see, for example. Anybody can do that. When I see these two bottles of water in front of me, I can know, I can point to one of them, so I can know the one individually. We’re able to do that. Mind works like that. Another thing that mental activity can do is to know how to engage with something, how to use something. I know that to drink this water, I need to lift the bottle, take the cap off, and put it to my mouth. So, worms know how to eat. Lastly, we know what things are. We don’t have to have a name for something; a worm doesn’t have a name for water, but it knows that that’s water, what we would call water with the word “water.”

This is on a basis level, and so we would call these “the basis types of deep awareness.” “Deep” here means very fundamental. In some cases, the word translated as “deep” can mean profound. But in this case of the five types of basis deep awareness, “deep” means really fundamental, deep in that sense. It’s clear that we all have these five because they are the most innate basic features of mental activity and describe how the mind works. 

However, these five types of deep awareness are limited now. They’re not working at their fullest level of efficiency. It’s very simple to understand this point. We’re all able to take in information, but how many of us could really be able to remember when we go home what everybody in this room was wearing? Although the information comes in, we’re quite limited in remembering it and then processing it. However, these five types of deep awareness network together and the continuum of moments of them networked together network with each other. When the limitations are removed from this network, it gives rise to the mind of a Buddha.

Thus, we have these basic Buddha-nature features. Ordinarily, they are just going to be involved with bringing us yet another rebirth – another rebirth with limited levels of these five types of deep awareness and with sometimes experiencing ordinary happiness, which doesn’t last, and sometimes unhappiness. And all of these will be going up and down in their intensity. So, that’s what’s going on, on a basis level. 

However, if we purify these basis level factors of the obscuring factors – unawareness and so on – that are making them limited, these two networks, if dedicated with bodhichitta, can give rise to the body and mind of a Buddha instead of to the limited body and mind of a rebirth as some sort of limited being. 

We have many other Buddha-nature factors. There are many systems for explaining them. We all have a body, the ability to communicate, what’s called speech, and we all have mind, the ability to know things. We all have some basic good qualities, like warmth, the ability to take care of someone – even if we’re just taking care of ourselves –and to avoid suffering, even if it’s our own suffering. This becomes a basis for infinite love and infinite compassion when it is purified. It’s not just taking care of ourselves to be happy, not just taking care of ourselves to avoid unhappiness, but to take care of everybody to be happy and everybody to be free of suffering – that’s infinite love and compassion. We have this as a basic ability. In addition to body, speech, mind, and good qualities, we also have activity. We do things. As a Buddha, we could do everything to benefit others, not just the limited number of things that we can do now. These five are also basis level Buddha-nature factors that can evolve into various aspects of a Buddha. There’s a continuum of them; we always have all these different factors in every rebirth. 

In addition, our mental continuum doesn’t exist in any sort of impossible way. An impossible way would be that it could never improve, that we can never get rid of the limitations, things like that. That’s impossible. So, that’s a very important aspect here, that all these Buddha-nature factors – the two networks, the five types of deep awareness, and the set of five starting with body and speech – can be affected. They are affected by causes and conditions so that they can evolve and grow. The limitations, etc., can be affected by causes and conditions so that they can be diminished and eventually be eliminated. These evolving factors don’t exist in this impossible way of being isolated, frozen, stuck.

Pathway Practices for Reaching the Resultant Level 

On the resultant level, as a Buddha, we would have all these various evolving factors, all these various qualities, present and simultaneously functioning at their fullest levels with no limitations. Now, we want to have a method that is going to enable us to work with this basis level to reach that resultant level, so that this basis level, rather than continuing forever in a limited way, will continue forever in the fully effective, fully efficient way as a Buddha. What we want as a method to enable us to reach that resultant stage is a type of practice that uses all these basis level factors, uses them simultaneously as a way that is going to help us to achieve that resultant goal. And we want to use a method – if we want to be really efficient – that is similar to or parallel to what we have on the basis level and what we have on the resultant level. In other words, we want a pathway tantra – a pathway everlasting continuum.

For this, we have the pathway practices of tantra. In other words, the tantra practices that we use as a path for reaching this resultant state, the enlightened state of a Buddha. We want to use the type of practice that has, as its foundation, something that has no beginning and no end – an everlasting continuum, a tantra – and this refers to these various Buddha-figures that we work with, the so-called “tantric deities.” When the term “deity” is used for them, we certainly don’t mean that in the sense of a creator God, or in the sense of the Hindu or Ancient Greek gods. We don’t mean that at all. Rather, the term in Tibetan is, literally, a “special type of god,” or a god that is above these ordinary types of gods. In English, we usually use the word “deity” because “god” implies a creator, so we use the word “deity.” I prefer to shy away from even that terminology because it can be quite confusing for many people.

Actually, this word “special type of deity” is only the Tibetan term. The Sanskrit term that that’s translating actually means a deity that is used for reaching a wished-for goal. “Wished-for” is the term ishtadevata in Sanskrit. It’s a deity form that we use for reaching our wished-for goal, which is not to go to heaven or to be rich, but to attain enlightenment. I think the Tibetans realize that to translate that literally into Tibetan would be quite misunderstood, and so they translated that as a “special type of deity.” Perhaps “deity” is used here because the type of body that we’re talking about is a very subtle type of body, not our usual type of material body, but there’s another term that’s used for it in Tibetan, yidam. Yi means mind, and dam is short for dam-tshig, which means a close bond. This is a figure that we make a close connection with – a close bond with – for our minds, in order to reach our desired goal, which is enlightenment.

So, what do we have here? We’re working with figures that are coming from a traditional Indian background, and so they have a certain variety of forms in many different colors. They have, very often, many faces, many arms, many legs. They change from moment to moment, but what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that they are growing older, or getting sick, or growing from a baby to an adult. However, while imagining ourselves in this form, we can do various things. In that sense, moment to moment, it is changing. It’s not static. It’s the type of phenomena sometimes called a static non-static phenomena. It’s non-static, so it does different things moment to moment to moment, but not only is it eternal – like a mental continuum, it has no beginning and no end – but also it is in a set form. It didn’t have to grow up, didn’t have to go to school, doesn’t get old, etc. It is always available in the same form forever for us to be able to use as an object in our meditation. In that sense, it forms a tantra, an everlasting stream. 

Although some of these Buddha-figures can be, in a sense, modeled after someone who was a limited being, like Tara was a woman. I mean, in a particular lifetime, she was a woman, and in that lifetime, she vowed to reach enlightenment in a female form in order to encourage women to achieve enlightenment. So, there was a being known as Tara, but the actual Buddha-form, the Buddha-figure Tara, is just, in a sense, modeled on that.

What we want to do in our practice is, instead of this network of positive force giving rise to an ordinary type of limited body in a samsaric rebirth state, to have it give rise to ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure, for instance Tara or Manjushri. We want our network of deep awareness, rather than giving rise to a limited type of mind with limited ability to understand, we want it to give rise to the type of mind of a Buddha with all the unlimited qualities of what we would differentiate in the West as mind and heart – the unlimited ability to know and understand everything and the unlimited qualities of the heart, such as compassion and love. 

Also, we want to have our speech be like that of a Buddha, so not just limited in its ability to communicate, but able to communicate to everybody in their own language and in a way that actually communicates to them so that they can understand. Then, we want to be able to act in the way that a Buddha acts, which is benefiting everybody. Actually, the way that a Buddha is able to benefit others is by what’s known as an enlightening influence – in other words, effortlessly. A Buddha doesn’t actually do anything; just by this positive influence of a Buddha, it stimulates others to be able to grow and to develop in a positive way, if, of course, the others are receptive – they have to be receptive to a Buddha’s enlightening influence.

Since on the resultant level, we have all these aspects simultaneously, and on the basis level, we also have them simultaneously – they are all present though obscured and limited – then in terms of our pathway tantra, our practice, we want to be able to practice all these different aspects simultaneously. This is what we do in tantra practice. 

This bring them all together in terms of the other meaning of tantra, which is the strings of a loom on which we can weave together various things. So, all these arms and legs and faces of the Buddha-figures in our tantra practice serve as a structure for weaving together all the different aspects that we develop with sutra level practice. All these arms and legs and faces, and all the things that they’re holding, and the colors represent various aspects of these qualities and various aspects of the practices to attain these qualities. Many of them have several levels of what they represent, not just one.

In the first stages of tantra practice, we work with the imagination. So, to start with, we imagine that we have the body of one of these figures, and we keep mindfulness of all the things that our arms and legs and faces represent, and we don’t just remember them as a list, but we also actually generate what they represent. In this way, we imagine having a body, mind, and good qualities like those of a Buddha. 

At the same time, our speech is saying mantras, which we imagine is able to communicate and teach and help everybody; everybody’s able to understand them. Also, we have Buddha-activity going on as well, this enlightening influence. We represent that influence by imagining that we are emitting lights that go out to everybody, relieve them of all their problems, bring them all good qualities, transform them into Buddhas, make offerings to them, etc. All of that is happening, as with a Buddha, by means of emanations, without having to actually get up and go and physically help them. Just by our presence, by these lights going out, we influence them in a positive way so that they overcome their problems.

We’re doing that all simultaneously in tantra practice. In this way, such practice acts as a cause – a path, as it were – to achieve “The Real Thing,” when all these factors are able to function fully as the qualities and aspects of an enlightened Buddha.

What we saw was, on a basis level, when we have these limitations of our unawareness, our confusion about reality, and the disturbing emotions, then what happens is that they activate karmic potentials, and we get a rebirth with more suffering, more confusion, more compulsive karmic behavior, and more limitations. To prevent this from happening and to rid ourselves of these limitations that occur on the basis level and to bring about a resultant level of a Buddha, we need to base our tantra practice on a correct understanding of voidness, emptiness.

Recognizing the Deceptive Nature of How Things Appear

Voidness means an absence. Something is absent; it never was there, we just imagine it. Our mind projects a false way in which things exist. In other words, it makes things appear in a way that’s impossible. Like, for instance, just a simple example – not so simple – we all pollute the environment, even though it doesn’t seem like that to us. When we do anything, what does it appear like? It just appears as though we’re doing something and that’s it. We’re smoking, or we’re producing smoke from cars, or whatever. What we are doing appears to exist there just by itself. Our mind doesn’t make the effect appear of what we are doing, does it? The appearance is that we can do something and it has no effect. 

Now that appearance doesn’t correspond to reality, does it? What is absent is an actual referent of this appearance that actually exists in a way that would correspond to what appears. In other words, in reality, doing things that pollute the environment but it has no effect. Well, that doesn’t exist. There’s nothing in reality that corresponds to this deceptive appearance that our mind makes appear.

We have limited hardware, with this type of brain, this type of body, these types of senses; they can’t really see or observe the effect of our actions right now when we’re acting. If we believe that these appearances correspond to reality, then we have confusion and all sorts of disturbing emotions and attitudes. They activate the karmic potentials to bring another rebirth with yet another limited body, yet another limited mind, and more unhappiness and more ordinary happiness that never lasts and never satisfies.

To get these networks to give rise to something like a Buddha body and mind – or on the pathway level of tantra practice, this visualization of a Buddha-figure and of the type of mind and speech of a Buddha – we have to first gain a correct understanding of voidness. We have to understand that all these Buddha-nature factors and Buddha-figures and even the Buddhas don’t exist in these impossible ways. With that understanding freeing us of at least some level of ignorance or unawareness and disturbing emotions, then it makes sense that to imagine that these Buddha-nature factors give rise to these purer forms, these Buddha-figure forms, rather than giving rise to a limited body and limited mind of a samsaric rebirth.

Even just being able to start the practice and maintain it with some level of conceptual understanding of voidness – that none of what we are doing exists in an impossible way, everything is interrelated by cause and effect – will build up the positive force that will serve as a cause for our understanding to get deeper and deeper, eventually enabling us to make the pure transformation of attaining the resultant state of a Buddha. So, gaining a correct understanding of voidness is essential.

In addition, if we really want to make our tantra practice more effective, we really need to understand the theory of tantra. What is it that we’re actually doing in the tantra practice, and why? Then, we need to have some basic understanding of how it would work, how it could work and how it does work.

So, that’s the basic introduction. We’ll continue in our next session with some description of the various parts of the type of tantra practice that most of us are engaged in – if we’re actually practicing tantra – which would be taking empowerments and practicing a sadhana. “Sadhana” is a Sanskrit word, and it means a method for actualizing ourselves as one of these Buddha-figures. A method for actualization is its literal meaning. Then, if we have time, we’ll look at some of the different parts of it and how we could make our practice of each of these parts more effective.

What questions might you have?


We are speaking about impossible ways of existing of phenomena. If we’re speaking about impossible ways, and we refute them, we say there is no such thing, then there is some way in which phenomena do exist, right?

Well, yes. When we refute impossible ways of existing, we are then left with the possible way in which everything does exist. Yes, of course. Things conventionally exist. 

More precisely, if we look at the theory of voidness, what is being refuted by voidness are impossible ways to establish that something exists. How do we know that something exists? We might think that things exist in a certain way and that there are certain criteria that will prove or establish that they exist in that way, but they are incorrect. For example, it appears to us that the existence of things is established from their own side, independently of anything. Afterall, it looks like they are objectively right there where they’re standing in front of our eyes, independently of their causes, parts and what they are conceived as being and are called. What proves or establishes that these things exist? We think it is proven by the fact that things function. But just because something performs the function of what it looks as though it truly is to us, does that establish or prove that it is established as truly existing in that way by the power of something findable on its own side?

For example, it looks to us that this table truly and objectively exists as a table. It’s right there, on its own, seemingly existing in the way that it looks to us. What we think proves that it truly and objectively exists as a table like that is that we can put this glass of water on it, and it will hold it; the table functions as a table. We imagine that there are the defining characteristics of a table findable on the side of this object that establish it as a table and that empower it to function as a table. 

Well, no one’s going to deny that the table functions to hold this glass. But does that prove that the table exists as a table, all on its own, truly as a table? Well, this is what’s impossible, even though it can function as a table. But if the ability to perform the function of a table establishes that it’s a table, then because we can sit on it, that should establish it as a chair. We can burn it, so that establishes it as firewood. If we’re a termite, an insect, we can eat it; it’s food. Just because it can hold a glass of water doesn’t prove that, from its own side, there it is, established from its own side, just objectively a table and nothing else.

Well, if it can also function as a chair for somebody that sits on it and function as food for something that can eat it and as firewood for someone who burns it – is it truly established as all of these? Or before anyone uses it to do anything, is it none of these? What is it? 

There are many, many different levels of understanding voidness, of what’s impossible. If it can function, as I said, as a table, a chair, food, and firewood, could it also function as a dog? Well, no, it couldn’t function as a dog. So, how do we establish what it can validly function as and what it can’t function as, and why id there a difference between the two?

Stools, too, and all that you mentioned – a table, chair, food and firewood – all of these are impossible ways?

No, those are possible, but what’s impossible is that it is established from its own side as existing as these things, independently of how one conceives of it. In other words, what’s impossible is that there’s something findable inside it, a findable defining characteristic, that by its own power makes it a table, a chair, firewood, or food, but there isn’t anything findable inside it that by its own power makes it a dog. Are there findable defining characteristics inside this object that allow us to be able to use it as only certain things, but not as other things. If there are, where are they? Can we point to them? We have to think very deeply about that, but nobody is denying that this object can be used as these things, as what is possible.

What’s the Russian word for table?


Does this exist as a table, or does it exist as a stol? What is it?

So, one gets into these sorts of questions. What allows us to call it correctly a table and a stol but doesn’t allow us to call it correctly a dog? What if a group of people decided, “In our language, we’re going to call it dog?” Maybe in some African language, it’s called “dog.” What does the sound “dog” that someone utters mean? Does it mean in their language what it means in our language? What is it? Is it objectively a dog? It starts to get very interesting.

Is it possible to speak about table not in terms of our relationship with the world? Can you speak about it without the subject who is perceiving it? What will it be if we remove the subject?

If we remove the subject, we can’t talk about it. There’s no analysis of it, there’s no knowing of it, no discussion of it without a subject. If nobody’s in this room – this becomes an interesting question – if nobody’s in this room, and we don’t have a spy camera or something like that working, is there a table in the room? How do we establish that there’s a table in the room? We can only establish that there’s a table in the room in relation to a subject, a mind that perceives it. There’s no way of establishing it separately, independently from a perception of it, or thinking of it, or thinking of the word for it. Afterall, any word for it is just a convention made up by the minds of some people who decided to call it that. 

That’s the whole issue here. How do we establish that something exists? It’s impossible, from a Buddhist point of view, to establish that anything exists independently from a mind. Now that doesn’t mean that it only exists in our head or if no one is in the room, it stops existing and it pops back into existence when someone comes in and sees it or calls it a “table.”

But if we go beyond the frame of our individual mind, and we speak in terms of the global universal mind of a Buddha, then from the point of view of this mind of the Buddha, can we speak about this object?

We can, but that’s in relation to a mind.

Does it mean that while we are going through the meditation path and we achieve more and more subtle levels of mind, and our goal is the mind of the Buddha, does it mean that we perceive objects on more and more subtle levels?

Do we perceive them in a purer way, we would say “yes,” both in terms of how things appear – the form in which they appear, their appearance – and how they appear to exist. I’ll just use a gross example; this is not really an exact analogy. We all can see you in the form of your physical body. With certain instruments, we could also perceive you in terms of your energy – for instance, with an electrocardiogram.

If I am on the level when I see energy, subtle body, then at the same time, I can see the physical body, right? But if I can see only the physical body, it means that from that level, if I’m limited, then I can’t perceive the second level, this subtle level body, right?


So the subtler my level of consciousness is, the subtler my perception, right? My way of how I perceive objects.

Yes. I mean, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, of course, because what we want to get rid of is the appearance of things existing in an impossible way. Whether we’re talking about the gross body or subtle energy, both of them could appear in an impossible way. We want to get rid of that appearance of an impossible way of existing and be able to perceive all the different levels of what something could appear to be. Like a Buddha can appear in very subtle forms, and a Buddha can appear in grosser forms.

And my second question that is connected with that: Is the form of a yidam culturally determined, or is it the same for practitioners from any country?

Well, from the point of view of Buddhism itself, we would say that the form of these figures is basically the same, regardless of which culture we come from, although these forms arose within Indian culture. There are slight variations in color, number of arms and so on, but they are basically the same. The question really has to be asked is, why would we change them, and what would we change them to? Some people say, well, couldn’t we visualize the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, and these sorts of figures? But actually the Christians would be highly offended if we did that. Should Indian and Tibetan Christians depict Buddha on a cross? I mean, it’s just as offensive, so what are we going to imagine? Are we going to imagine Mickey Mouse? I mean, what are we going to imagine? What different forms are we going to use?

Although these figures might be alien to us, they’re alien to Indians and Tibetans as well. We don’t find people walking around with three faces and six arms and many different colors, so it’s strange to them as well. Nonetheless, Tibetans use them, the Chinese use them and the Japanese use them. What makes us any different?

I asked because, in Latin American countries, there are some practitioners who have visions who see these yidams in a different way. For instance, Tara, but this Tara is with the extra head of an eagle. And people in control there, they have officially adopted these forms and say that these forms are okay.

Well, the thing is that each of these various figures can appear in many different forms. Let’s take as an example Avalokiteshvara – that’s Chenrezig in Tibetan. Avalokiteshvara is usually white, but there are red forms as well. Some are sitting, some are standing, some have two arms, some have four arms, some have a thousand arms. The Tibetan and Indian forms are male, but the Chinese ones are female. There are many different forms of any one yidam, one Buddha-figure, though none of them look like Jesus Christ or Mickey Mouse.

It is also said that when the practices become too overly popularized so that people trivialize them, then other forms will be revealed – either in a vision, or some buried treasure text, or something like that. Having an eagle head on top of a figure is not so unusual. There is a form of Vajrapani, for example, that has above the usual head a horse’s neck and a full garuda, which is a type of eagle. It is the figure called “Vajrapani-Hayagriva-Garuda.” So, there’s nothing terribly special about what you describe in Latin America. It could be. An eagle would be called a garuda in India.

The point is that if there is another form that has been revealed of one of these Buddha-figures, then people doing the practices based on this form need to be able to achieve the results. Its effectiveness, its validity, is determined in terms of whether it works or not. It’s not just a hallucination of some schizophrenic crazy person.

If the practitioner visualizes himself or herself as a deity but doesn’t have the understanding of voidness, will there be some difference in comparison with a person who has this understanding?

Oh, definitely. Without the understanding of voidness, to think that we actually are Tara or Chenrezig or whatever is no different from a crazy person thinking that they’re Napoleon or Cleopatra or Mickey Mouse. It can lead very easily to schizophrenia – imagining all sorts of weird things, totally out of touch with reality – because we have to understand the voidness of the Buddha-figure as well. As it says in the texts, if one visualizes oneself in these forms without the understanding of voidness and without bodhichitta, it just acts as a cause to be reborn as a ghost in the form of this figure. 

Last question.

When we are speaking about our understanding of voidness, are we speaking about our conceptual or intellectual understanding of voidness, or about the experience?

Well, conceptual understanding is an experience, so we have to be a little bit careful with our terminology here. At first, our understanding will be conceptual because that’s the only way that it can be, to start with. Then, eventually it needs to become, of course, non-conceptual. 

There are various stages for attaining that non-conceptual cognition. But what really is quite essential here is to know what the difference is between a conceptual cognition and a non-conceptual one. The difference between these two is not the same difference as exists between intellectual and intuitive understandings. That’s a different way of dividing experience. That’s a Western way of dividing it. That’s not what is being referred to by conceptual and non-conceptual cognition in Buddhism.

A conceptual cognition of voidness cognizes voidness through the category “voidness.” So, every time we focus on voidness, although each time is an individual experience, we always cognize the voidness that arises as the object in that cognition as fitting into the category of voidness. We don’t have to say the word “voidness” in our mind. 

In conceptual cognition of voidness, there’s something in-between our mental consciousness and the conceptual representation of voidness that arises, and that’s the category “voidness.” “Oh yeah, now I’m meditating on voidness again. It fits into the same category as before.” Such a cognition of voidness can be a very deep experience with all sorts of transformative effects, but it’s still through this category. As I say, that doesn’t necessarily mean verbalizing it in our head. You know: “Voidness. Now I’m meditating on voidness.” It doesn’t have to be like that, but the category is there.

A non-conceptual cognition of voidness is a cognition of it that is not mixed with the category “voidness.” Here’s the tricky part – we know that it’s voidness, but we’re not mixing it with the category “voidness.” It’s very, very subtle because we’re not talking here about whether or not we actually think “voidness” – that’s something else – because even if we’re not thinking “voidness,” the category could still be there.

Think of it with a simpler example, “dog.” There are many, many different types of dogs; they all look very different. We look at this animal, and we could think “dog” – we could even have the word “dog” being verbalized in our mind. But without even thinking “dog,” we see it as a dog. We’re not mixing it with the category “dog.” Non-conceptually, we know it’s a dog and not a cat, and we’re relating to the individual animal that’s right here, and not just to an animal that fits with many others into the category “dog.” 

Does it mean that we, at the same time, are working with our non-conceptual understanding of reality, and it is becoming more and more subtle, and we are also working and developing our conceptual description of the world?

Non-conceptual cognition can be with sensory consciousness or mental consciousness. Non-conceptual cognition of voidness, of course, is with mental consciousness. In terms of cognizing ordinary objects, not voidness, our mental non-conceptual cognition is happening just for a tiny instant after a sensory non-conceptual cognition. Almost instantly, it becomes conceptual. 

For example, when I look around the room, what am I seeing? I’m seeing colored shapes and I’m seeing commonsense objects as well – bodies and, as an imputation upon them, people. Now I know that all these objects I see are people. Am I thinking, “people?” No. I mean, I’m certainly not verbalizing “people” when I look at all of you, but I know that you are people. So, do I have a concept of people that enables me to see all of you as people? Am I fitting what I see in the category “people?” This is the interesting question. To see you non-conceptually and know you are people, I need to have the concept of people beforehand, but I don’t need to fit you into the category “people” to know you are people once I have the concept of “people.”  

Also, there are certain associations I might have with that category “people,” aren’t there? If I talk to you, there’s a possibility that you might understand. I’m not talking to a picture of people. I suppose that the closest thing to these associations that we would have in the West is an idea; I have an idea of what people can do. That would be conceptual. 

Is it a preconception? Usually, when we say preconception, it has some sort of judgmental aspect to it: I have a preconception that you’re going to like me, or that you’re not going to like me. Such a preconception is not the same as the idea that people can understand if I talk to them.

It’s not an idea?

To me, there is a difference between a preconception and an idea. But remember, these are Western terms, and not the Buddhist ones. A preconception about people is not necessarily the same as an idea about people. A preconception, I think, has a biased, judgmental aspect or prejudiced aspect to it, such as they are not going to like me or that they are bad people. An idea about people is more neutral. Seeing the people here, it looks like some of them are uncomfortable. The idea I have about why they look like that is that it’s late and maybe they have to catch a bus or a metro, or maybe they need to go to the toilet. There are many ideas I could have about them that are more neutral than a preconception I might have even before I see them, such as the preconception that they’re not going to like me. 

Both preconceptions and ideas are associations tacked on to categories – a preconception about people or an idea about people concerns some quality or characteristic of them. The category “people,” however, concerns simply what people are. When we see a group of people and fit them in the category “people,” we know what people are. We don’t fit them in the category “tables” or “apples.” We could use the word “idea” here as well. “I have an idea of what people are.”  

If I just see you and so just non-conceptually cognize you, does that mean I have no idea of what a person is? I don’t know what a person is? Well, it doesn’t mean that. I know what a person is. I know that people have legs that could hurt from sitting on the floor for a few hours. I know that they need to get home and that they may need to go to the toilet. I know all of that, but those are things I know conceptually. These ideas I have about people do not get mixed with seeing them as people, not seeing them as tables.  

Actually, maybe this distinction I’m drawing between categories, preconceptions, and ideas is artificial. There are also “concepts,” but the Tibetan word translated as “concept” (rtog-pa) actually means a conceptual cognition. In any case, the main feature of conceptual cognition is that it is cognition, through a category, of a conceptual representation of an individual item that fits into the category. It can occur either with or without seeing an individual item immediately before. We can think of a person and represent them in our minds, or we can see someone and immediately think of them as a person.  

It’s very, very difficult to recognize the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual cognition. The difference is very subtle. The indication is usually in terms of how vivid the object appears; if it’s mixed with a category, what appears is not so vivid. It is slightly veiled by the category. Usually, when we are awake, since our non-conceptual sense perception and the tiny moment of non-conceptual mental cognition that follow last for so tiny a moment and are followed instantly be conceptual cognition, it is really difficult to identify non-conceptual cognition.