Tantra: Buddha-Nature and the Not-Yet-Happening Attainment of Enlightenment


We started our discussion of how to make our tantra practice more effective. We saw that the most fundamental thing to start with is to understand what tantra is and what the essential points of tantra practice are – how does it work. Also, we saw that the word “tantra” means an everlasting stream of continuity. On a basis level, that’s referring to all our Buddha-nature factors, which are innate features of our mental continuum. “Innate” (lhan-skyes) literally means “simultaneously arising.” The Buddha-nature factors arise simultaneously with each moment of our mental activity, each moment of our mental continuum. The resultant level of them is when all these Buddha-nature factors are working at their fullest capacity – in other words, in the enlightened state of a Buddha, which will also go on forever.

The basic Buddha-nature factors occur also on the basis level with no beginning and no end, but as for the obscurations that limit the capacity of these factors to work at their fullest level of efficiency – although they have no beginning, they can come to an end. This is because these obscuring factors are not based on reality or correct understanding of reality, and so their basis, unawareness, can be replaced with correct awareness. When we are able to stay with correct understanding, without a break, then these disturbing factors, these obscuring factors will never arise again. Then, these Buddha-nature factors will no longer be limited; they will work at their fullest level as a resultant tantra, and they will continue functioning like this forever.

It’s very important to be convinced that we all have these Buddha-nature factors in order to practice tantra effectively because, without this conviction, it’s very easy to fall sometimes into low self-esteem. We think that we can’t really accomplish anything, that “I’m not good enough.” On the other hand, if we go to the opposite extreme of thinking that “I’m already a Buddha, I don’t really have to do anything in order to be a Buddha,” then we overestimate ourselves, we overestimate these Buddha-nature factors. Of course, since we’re not enlightened yet, we make many, many mistakes, being completely filled with arrogance and false pride.

We spoke about the basis tantra and the resultant tantra, now we also have a pathway tantra. This pathway tantra refers these Buddha-figures that we practice with in tantra. These Buddha-figures aren’t like human being who have to be conceived, get born as babies and grow. They always remain in the same form and are always available, forever. In that sense, they’re a tantra, an everlasting continuum. 

We also saw that tantra practice entails first imagining ourselves, but then eventually transforming ourselves into these Buddha-figures. While imagining our body to be that of a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure, we also imagine that we have the mind of a Buddha, so all the understanding, the love, compassion, etc. of a Buddha. We also imagine that we have the speech of a Buddha, so we have mantras that are able to communicate perfectly with everyone. And we imagine that the way that we are acting is benefiting all beings, so we imagine that lights go out from our heart and benefit everyone. 

The Conventional “Me” Versus the False “Me”

In order to work with these Buddha-figures, which have many arms and faces – so they help us to keep in mind all the things that they represent, all the qualities of a Buddha – we need to understand the reality of what’s going on, which entails quite a lot, actually.

When we talk about “me” – the self, the person each of us call “me,” everybody’s individual “me” – it’s an imputation phenomenon on what are known as our aggregate factors. The aggregate factors include the body, mind, speech, emotions and all the other non-static phenomena that comprise each moment of experience on our mental continuum. Each of them are changing at different rates every moment of our continuum, lifetime after lifetime. 

An imputation phenomenon is a phenomenon that cannot exist or be known independently of a basis. There are many types of imputation phenomena, but among those that are non-static, there are some that are neither forms of physical phenomena nor ways of being aware of something. The self, “me,” is one of these, as is age. No one has to impute a self or age on an individual continuum of aggregates for that continuum to constitute a person, “me,” and to have an age during a specific lifetime.

The self, however, is not something that is identical to any of the aggregates, nor is it something totally separate and independent of the aggregates. So, what is the self? How do we establish that there is such a thing as a self, “me?” The self is merely what concept and category “self” refers to when conceptually labeled on the aggregates and merely what the word “me” refers to when designated on the aggregates. It is the referent object (btags-chos) of the mental labeling or designation. 

That word or concept “me” actually does refer to something, even though there’s no solid findable “me” with a big line around it, sitting somewhere in our head, talking – the voice in our head – and manipulating, controlling what’s happening or just observing it. Technically, it refers to the “me” that exists as a mere conventionality (kun-rszob-tsam) when the conventional “me” is not analyzed either from a conventional or a deepest point of view. For the sake of simplicity, most non-technical discussions call it “the conventional “me,’” so let’s do that as well. 

We do exist; there is a “me,” but that’s the conventional “me.” What doesn’t exist is the false “me” – the false “me” being what could correspond to a concept or word, which would be something just sort of sitting there, with a big line around it, “me” – as if it were encapsulated in plastic, isolated from everything else, never changing, some sort of solid monad type of thing. Anyway, that’s the false “me,” what is technically called a “referent thing” (btags-don).

We have this conventional “me” as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all these changing factors of our experience. Among those changing factors of our experience in every moment, we have these Buddha-nature features, don’t we? Remember, what we were referring to with these Buddha-nature factors? The evolving ones refer to our network of positive force or positive potential and our network of deep awareness, which includes the five types of deep awareness as the way that the mind actually works – taking in information, putting things together, etc. The evolving factors also include having some sort of body as our appearance, some sort of communicative ability, some type of mental activity or mind, and some sort of activity. They also include some level of good qualities like concentration, intelligence, and positive emotions like love and compassion.

From one lifetime or another, our mental continuum will operate through some sort of physical body, and these different types of physical bodies will be the appearance that we’ll have. These ordinary samsaric appearances – an appearance as a human being, or a dog, or a ghost, or a cockroach, whatever – are going to be generated by the so-called “stains” that obscure our Buddha-nature factors.

You see, part of each moment of our experience is not only these Buddha-nature factors, but also stains that obscure them These stains include unawareness, various disturbing emotions, karmic impulses, positive and negative karmic potentials, and so on. Some of these stains are also going to be there in each moment. So, “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of all of whichever items in the five aggregates that are present in each moment. 

“Me,” then, refers to the actual conventional “me” that is based on each moment of our continuing experience, comprised of both these Buddha-nature factors and also these obscuring factors. It is because of these obscuring factors – specifically, unawareness and disturbing emotions – that these networks of positive and negative karmic potential get activated and give rise our appearing with a samsaric body. From the network of positive force, it will be the body of one of the better rebirth states, and from the negative one, one of the worse rebirth states. That’s going on and on and on and on. 

That unawareness and the disturbing emotions are also going to cause our network of deep awareness to give rise to a limited mind in each moment in each rebirth – whether a rebirth as a human or as a mosquito. Our mind will be limited in our understanding of things and limited in our love for others. Maybe our concern for happiness is only centered on ourselves or only to a few people, all these limitations.

So, what are we doing with the tantra practice in terms of imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure or eventually generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure? We understand – this is very important in order to make our tantra practice effective – that these obscuring factors can be removed. They are known as “fleeting taints.” They don’t have a firm basis, in the sense that they’re not based on reality. They’re based on unawareness, which can be refuted and therefore eliminated. Not knowing how things exist can be replaced by knowing how things do exist. Knowing it incorrectly can be replaced by knowing it correctly. Instead of being samsara-builder networks of karmic potential and deep awareness driven by unawareness and karmic impulses, they can become enlightenment-builder networks of positive potential and deep awareness of reality driven by bodhichitta. And although that elimination – that stopping of these obscuring factors – hasn’t been attained yet, we understand that it can be attained.

When the stopping of these obscuring factors is attained, then that enlightenment-builder network of positive potential, supported by the correct understanding on the enlightenment-builder network of deep awareness, will give rise to our appearance with an enlightening body of a Buddha and not an appearance of the body of one of the better samsaric rebirth states. However, the attainment of that has not yet happened, but it can happen. If we think in terms of our mental continuum, then sometime in the future, it is possible that all these obscuring factors will be removed – there will be the attainment of a true stopping of them – and then all the potentials of these Buddha-nature factors will be functioning at their fullest level, giving rise to the body, speech, mind of the individual Buddha that we will become. 

Although our attainment of this has yet not happened, there are a not-yet-happening body of a Buddha and a not-yet-happening speech and mind of a Buddha that we have not yet attained. All of these not-yet-happening phenomena can be validly known conceptually because they can happen based on their causes, our Buddha-nature factors, even though they’re not happening right now. The conventional “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of that not-yet-attained and not-yet-happening Buddha body, speech and mind as well. 

We can understand this from an experience that most of us undoubtedly have had. When we were young children, we imagined what we would look like and do when we are grown up. We might have even played by pretending we were a doctor or a mother. Our adult body was not yet happening and not yet attained at that time, yet it was something that we could imagine and think of as “me.”

Consider our mental continuum, our moment to moment to moment experiencing from when we were a baby, now as an adult, and when we will be an old person (if we live that long). The conventional “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of that entire continuum and not just on the present moment. Even though the “me” is changing from moment to moment, that’s still “me” and not someone else. The conventional “me” is also a valid imputation phenomenon on the basis of that not-yet-happening body, speech and mind of the Buddhahood that we will attain.

At present, all that we can do is represent the body, speech and mind of this enlightened state that we can attain with something similar to it, and that would be something in our imagination. The conventional “me” is also a valid imputation phenomenon on the basis of this imagined, not-yet-happening enlightening body, speech and mind. However, in order to be able to validly consider as “me” the “me” that is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of this visualization, we need to precede this visualization of something imaginary with an understanding of the voidness of the self, “me.” 

Remember, unawareness, ignorance, is what is generating, in a sense, through a complicated process, our ordinary samsaric appearance, our ordinary limited speech, and our ordinary limited mind with all our disturbing emotions. However, none of them exist in the impossible way in which they appear to exist, as though that’s solidly “me.” “There it is, encapsulated in plastic. It will never change; it’s existing all on its own, unrelated to anything else that’s going on or to causes or conditions.” That’s what this “me” appears like. It just is sort of sitting there, here I am! That is false, whether the conventional “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of our ordinary samsaric form, our visualized Buddha form, or our actual body as a Buddha.

Achieving Our Not-Yet-Happening Attainment of Enlightenment through an Understanding of Voidness 

With the understanding of voidness, then, we focus on, “There’s no such thing as something that corresponds to this appearance.” There’s no such thing, in reality, as this ordinary appearance of myself as if encapsulated in plastic: “This is what I look like. If I look at myself in the mirror, there’s ‘me.’” With the understanding of voidness, we focus on “no such thing.” We clear out all of that confusion. 

Then, that understanding of voidness, plus compassion, love, and bodhichitta, will cause our network of positive force to be an enlightenment-builder network and to give rise to our purer appearance as a Buddha-figure. Then, while maintaining the understanding of voidness – that our purer appearance doesn’t exist in any sort of impossible way, it’s not encapsulated in plastic either – we hold what’s called the “pride of the deity” on the basis of this purer appearance. We conceptually label “me” on the basis of that, which means that we fit this conceptual representation of the not-yet-happening enlightening body, speech, and mind that we can attain into the category of “me.” Representing our not-yet-happening enlightening body, speech, and mind with our imagination functions as a cause for actually achieving the not-yet-happening attainment of this enlightened state much more quickly than with the sutra methods alone. This is because what we visualize is similar and parallel to what we aim to attain. But visualizing this will only function like that so long as we maintain a correct understanding of voidness and the motivation: compassion, love and bodhichitta.

Bodhichitta is focused on our not-yet-happening attainment of our individual state of enlightenment. Usually, I say in brief that it is focused on our individual not-yet-happening enlightenment, but technically, only a Buddha can cognize the state of enlightenment. As limited beings, we can only focus on our not-yet-happening attainment of it. But, in any case, with bodhichitta, we are visualizing something that represents this enlightened state, which we have not yet attained, but we focus on it with the intention to attain it. We also focus on it with the intention to help all beings as much as is possible once we attain that state, because our motivation for attaining it is love and compassion. 

In order to bring about the presently-happening attainment of our state of enlightenment, the state of a Buddha, we understand that our attainment of it has not yet happened, so we don’t have this overinflated sense of a “me” that now we’re a Buddha. We know that our attainment of it is not yet happening. What we need to do is to gradually get rid of –  “purify” is the technical term – all these disturbing factors and obscuring factors that prevent this attainment. In addition, we need to increase the intensity of the positive factors, the Buddha-nature factors, that can evolve. Some Buddha-nature factors, such as the two enlightenment-builder networks can evolve and grow; others, like the voidness of the mind remain always the same whether we are enlightened or not.

To make our tantra practice effective, we need to understand all of this and practice with that understanding. We realize that there are these Buddha-nature factors and we realize that there are also all these obscurations limiting them as well. We also realize that both these Buddha-nature factors and the obscurations are parts of our moment to moment experience. We understand the voidness of all of this, that none of it is existing frozen, encapsulated in plastic, existing in some impossible way. We know if we get rid of these obscuring factors, such that they never arise again, then all these Buddha-nature factors will give rise to the not-yet-happening body, speech and mind of our individual state of a Buddha. 

But now, this enlightening body, speech and mind are not yet happening. Nevertheless, not-yet-happening phenomena – for instance, what we are going to have for dinner tomorrow – can be validly focused on conceptually and so we can validly conceptually label “me” on our not-yet-happening attainment of that enlightened state that we’re aiming to achieve with bodhichitta. 

Although we’re validly conceptually labeling “me” on a visualized conceptual representation of the not-yet-happening body, speech and mind of that enlightened state, we understand fully well that an actual enlightening body, speech and mind are not presently happening. We don’t pretend that now we really are a Buddha; otherwise, we’d be crazy if we thought like that. We understand that in order to attain a presently-happening body, speech and mind of a Buddha, we need to not only focus, with bodhichitta and an understanding of voidness, on this visualization with the divine pride of feeling we are the “me” labeled on it this visualization. That’s not enough. We also need to weaken – “purify” is the word – and eventually get rid of the obscuring factors that limit them and build up the positive enlightenment-building factors. 

If we get rid of the obscuring factors and build up the positive enlightenment-building factors, then we will be able to stay focused continuously, forever, on voidness, and to have pure great compassion, aimed at everybody continuously. Now, these obscuring factors are limiting the ability of our Buddha-nature factors. We can’t maintain these factors operating at full capacity and in an unbroken fashion. We get tired; we get distracted. Therefore, in order to make our tantra practice effective, we need to prepare ourselves. We do this by performing what are known as the preliminary practices, ngondro (sngon-’gro) in Tibetan.

Preparing for Tantra: Ngondro Practices 

The word “preliminaries” can also be translated as “preparation,” they prepare us for our tantric journey. There are several ways of doing these preparatory practices. We could complete them all as an unbroken event before we begin any tantra practice. Or we could do some amount of these practices first, and then complete them while already engaged in the beginning stages of our tantra practice. In either case, these practices help us to at least start purifying or diminishing these negative, obscuring factors and building up the positive ones. 

There are many different ngondro practices; there’s not only one set of them. In different Tibetan traditions, there’ll be different ones that we do, and even within one tradition, our own spiritual teacher may advise us to do something different from what they advise the other students to do. It can be quite individually prescribed, but in each tradition, there usually is a fairly standard one that most people will do, unless our teacher tells us to do something different. This usually involves, in almost all cases, reaffirming as our basis refuge (the safe direction we are taking in life) and bodhichitta – in other words, making our motivation firm. For purifying the negative, obscuring factors, there are prostration and Vajrasattva meditation. Then, for building up positive force, there are mandala offerings and what’s known as “guru-yoga.”

Without going into much detail about what each of these practices entail, what we do is repeat each of them a 100,000 times, or in some traditions a 130,000 times, or in some traditions a 108,000 times. It doesn’t really matter; the point is, it’s a lot. In some traditions, we don’t even count; we just do each one until we get some sort of indication that it’s effective. That’s because it’s very easy to get really caught up in counting and lose our focus on the actual state of mind that we’re trying to generate. We’re just building up numbers.

We shouldn’t think that just because we’ve done a ngondro, that that’s it: We don’t have to do anymore. Because if we look at the sadhana practices that we all do, these preliminary practices are there before the main part of the practice. Of course, there are very short sadhanas that abbreviate and leave such things out, but the abbreviated ones just provide the structure of the full sadhana. We’re supposed to fill into it all the details of the long one, the full practices. All the full practices have, as their first part, all these ngondro practices again. So, we do a little bit of that every single day.

If we don’t understand the purpose and importance of these preparatory, preliminary practices, we might belittle or ignore them. But, without them, our tantra practice will not be very effective because we haven’t really worked on overcoming – or at least trying first to diminish and eventually overcoming – these obscuring factors, these troublemakers that are going to cause our practice to be disturbed – for instance, we can’t focus. We’re practicing the sadhana with a wrong motivation, etc. Our tantra practice is becoming a big ego-trip.

If we don’t understand the necessity of these preliminary practices while we’re doing them, then these preliminary practices themselves won’t be effective. Instead of making prostrations, we might as well be doing push-ups in the army. We could easily practice them just with the attitude that this is some nasty tax that we have to pay in order to be able to get to the good stuff, and so our heart really isn’t into it. We don’t really understand the necessity of making prostrations and how they will function if we’re doing them correctly. So, absolutely critical for our practice to be effective is understanding what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how to do them properly.

If we’re doing these various preparatory practices, we need certain tools to be able to do them effectively. For example, we need the ability to concentrate; if we can’t concentrate, then our mind is going to wander all over the place while we’re trying to do these practices. So even before these practices, we need to prepare, build up some of the tools that we’re going to need in order to do these preliminary practices effectively. That doesn’t mean that we have to perfect these tools, like concentration, before we start our tantra practice, but we don’t start working on them with the tantra practice. We need to have some familiarity and some level of progress in building up these tools before we try to use them in tantra practice.

If we’re reciting a four-line verse, or however many lines it is – it doesn’t matter what we recite; in different traditions, we recite different things – but if we’re reciting a verse over and over again, 100,000 times, for generating a bodhichitta motivation, well, if we haven’t worked beforehand on all the steps to sincerely develop that motivation, just repeating this verse isn’t going to generate that state of mind. We have to be able to generate that bodhichitta state of mind based on our previous practice, in order to be able to bring it to our focus while we’re reciting this verse.

The Form of the Buddha-Figures

Another question that comes up, a very interesting question, is: “Am I really going to look like one of these figures – with all these arms and legs and faces and colors, and holding all these strange things – when I become enlightened? Is that what it means to be a Buddha? That I look like that?” Because of thinking, “This is so strange!” and “Why would I want to look like that as a Buddha?” we might not be able to really put our heart into visualizing ourselves in that form. Again, the practice is not so effective because – maybe it’s unconscious; we’re not consciously thinking this – but unconsciously our attitude could be: “This is just too strange, and it really is stupid. What does it matter that I’m holding a wheel in this hand, or I’m holding a wheel in that hand, and a jewel in this one or a jewel in that one? So what? This is stupid and arbitrary. Some figures hold a wheel in this hand; some figures hold a wheel in another hand. What’s the point?” If we have this type of attitude, it sabotages our practice and makes it not so effective.

First of all, as a Buddha, we can appear in any form. We’re not stuck with 24 arms or 16 legs, or like that. We can appear in any form that is going to be useful or helpful to others. As a Buddha, we certainly don’t have to hold a wheel in this hand and a vase in that hand and a flower in that hand. These figures are a method – both a method to reach enlightenment and a method that we can use to help others reach enlightenment too. Remember the word “yidam,” it’s something to make a close bond with our mind in order to attain a wished-for goal.

Remember also that other meaning of the word “tantra” – the strings of a loom on which to weave cloth. These arms, the things they are holding and so on are a structure. They represent various positive qualities, various realizations, various understandings, various parts of the path. The arms and legs are the loom on which to weave them all together. They help us to be mindful of all of them simultaneously. “Mindfulness” is like a mental glue – it is the mental factor that prevents us from letting go of what we are focusing on. It allows us to maintain our attention on all these things that these arms and legs represent, and to do that all at the same time. It’s very hard to maintain our mindfulness on many things simultaneously in just an abstract way. If we represent them graphically, it’s easier.

But what about all these details, with wheels, the flowers and the jewelry, and all of that? Is there a point to them? This question comes up when we learn that tantra practices don’t just entail visualizing ourselves as one figure. It’s bad enough that this figure has all these arms and legs and faces, but we’re also in a building, the mandala palace, and there are many, many figures in it, both inside and outside, and all these figures also have many arms, and some of them many faces and legs as well, and they’re holding different things. We’re trying to imagine all of that. In Kalachakra practice, for example, the mandala has 722 figures in it, and they’re all look different and are holding different things. Then, we start to think, “Well, what does it matter that this one figure over there in a group of 30 figures in that obscure corner of the mandala palace is holding this and not that in its four hands? Come on, what’s the point of this? This is ridiculous!” That also sabotages our practice.

So, what is the point? The point is that we want to build up the causes for becoming a Buddha. A Buddha is omniscient; the mind of a Buddha is aware of everything simultaneously. Especially, a Buddha is aware of all limited beings, simultaneously, and all their problems, and their past lives, and what would be the best way of teaching all of them. The mind of a Buddha is expanded fully and holds all this information simultaneously and  sees how all of it is all interwoven and interrelated.

How can we train ourselves to be able to do all of this? How can we train ourselves to open our mind to be aware of more and more things, more and more details, simultaneously? These very complex visualizations are a method to train our minds to be able to do that. 

Another purpose of all this detail has to do with another aspect of how the mind works. We can understand things with images. We can understand things with words. We can understand things with facts. We can understand things with feelings, emotions. For some people, in our ordinary state, one way of understanding things may be more prominent than others. Some people are much more visual, pictorial. Other people are much more verbal. Some people can learn much more easily by seeing things written. Some people learn things much better by hearing them. We all have different aspects of how we can retain information, how we can learn, how we can understand through different media. This is because we have Buddha-nature factors that enable us to do each of these. 

We want to develop all these possible ways of knowing things, especially since we want to be able to teach others. To be able to do that effectively, we have to be able to communicate through each type of media. So, we visualize these details, we recite verses of what they represent, we meditate to generate the states of mind they represent, and so on, all in the sadhanas.

So, by visualizing all these pictorial details, that helps us to expand our minds and be better able to teach all others. Also, we’re not just visualizing and reciting mantras, but we’re also trying to keep in mind what everything represents and to generate various feelings like love, compassion, patience, the various levels of understanding, etc. The actual content of these images, as I say, is arbitrary, in a sense – not arbitrary because there are certain symbols that are always used – but whether a lotus is in this hand or that hand, it doesn’t really matter because there’s so much variation.

If we have one system with all these images, no matter how complex it is – obviously, in our practice we start with ones that are less complex, and then work with larger and larger and more complex ones – the point is to train the mind to keep all these details simultaneously, with equal concentration on all of them. As I said, it doesn’t matter that these images can be different in different practice lineages of even the same Buddha-figure, and so these images seem to be arbitrary. That doesn’t matter; that’s not the point. The point is not to be able to visualize flowers and vases and wheels and stuff. That’s not the point either. It’s just a method to train the mind. There are conventions that have been established, even though they were established in India and so they might not be from our culture, but what difference does it make? So, a moon represents bodhichitta; a sun represents an understanding of voidness; a lotus represents renunciation. Well, fine. Why not? Why do we have to change it? There’s no reason to change it.

That’s an interesting thing to investigate in terms of our attitudes. Why would we want to change these images? What would we change them to? What are we going to represent the qualities with that we want to develop – for instance, bodhichitta with an image of a bottle of mineral water? I mean, what are we going to change them to? And why? “Because I don’t like it.” “Because I didn’t grow up with this.” That’s not a sufficient reason. Again, to make the tantra practice effective, we need to understand, as I’ve been explaining, the basis, the result and also the path. What’s going on here? How is it functioning? Why is it functioning? Why is it like this?

Inspiration from the Spiritual Teacher: An Essential

Aspect of an Empowerment 

In any case, there’s one more Buddha-nature factor that we need to mention and that is involved with tantra practice and that is that these positive Buddha-nature factors, these evolving ones, can be stimulated; they can be positively stimulated to grow. So, that’s talking about inspiration. Through inspiration, these factors can grow. The term I translate as “inspiration” (byin-gyis rlabs) is often translated as “blessing,” but that makes things too vague and almost mystical and going off into interpolating ideas from other religions into Buddhism – “blessings.” So, I don’t like to use that term. We can be inspired so that these factors are stimulated to grow. Inspiration comes into our tantric practice in the context of receiving an initiation.

In order to engage in a tantra practice, we need to receive an initiation. “Initiation” is a Western way of understanding and translating the term. The term in Tibetan, wang (dbang), means an “empowerment.” The most important aspect in the empowerment is the spiritual teacher. The main function of the spiritual teacher in the empowerment is to inspire the disciples. What does “inspire” mean in this context? The disciples get inspired in the sense that, through this ceremony, their Buddha-nature factors, these potentials, get activated and stimulated to grow. This empowers them to be used effectively in the practices. 

The original Sanskrit term that the Tibetans translated as “empowerment,” (abhisheka), means “a sprinkling.” Just as we sprinkle water on a seed so that it grows, the interaction with the spiritual teacher sprinkles inspiration on the seeds that are our Buddha-nature factors to activate them and stimulate their growth. In addition, through special experiences the disciples have during the empowerment, the interaction with the teacher sprinkles fresh seeds in them. 

During the empowerment, then, it is important to have a relation with the spiritual teacher such that they actually move and inspire us. If we feel nothing during the ritual, or if the teacher isn’t qualified, and so on, the empowerment will not be effective; there will be no sprinkling of seeds. That’s why it’s very important to not just go to any empowerment that anybody is giving. We have to feel some sort of connection with the teacher. “Connection” means that we feel inspired by them in a positive way.

During the empowerment, we take vows. We take them with a teacher, whose qualifications we know and are confident of, for whom we have great respect, and who inspires us greatly. Taking vows is an essential part of any empowerment: bodhisattva vows for all of four classes of tantra and, in addition to bodhisattva vows, tantric vows for the two higher classes. These vows set the boundaries within which we are going to practice.

“There is no empowerment without taking vows.” In other words, without taking the vows, we have not received the empowerment. This is stated very clearly and explicitly in so many texts. We have to consciously take the vows, not just repeat some words in a language we don’t know and have no idea what we’re doing. Often, we don’t even know that we’ve been taking vows. That doesn’t count. To take a vow, we have to consciously take it and commit ourselves not to transgress it. 

These vows are not easy to keep, so we really have to examine ourselves before going to an empowerment to see if we are prepared to keep them. Like, for instance, one of the tantric vows is to be mindful – that means to meditate and bring to mind – six times a day, the understanding of voidness. Well, if we have no idea what voidness is, how in the world can we do that? Mind you, we don’t have to have the most profound understanding of voidness, but some understanding, which means we have to always be working with it, always trying to stay mindful of it.

During the empowerment, the texts also say that we have to have some sort of conscious positive experience that either stimulates the seeds that are already there in our mental continuum or freshly plants new seeds. Some Tibetan traditions speak of having some sort of conscious experience of Buddha-nature. “I have Buddha-nature.” The Gelug tradition speaks of having some sort of experience of blissful awareness and an understanding of voidness at whatever level we can. In other words, some understanding that things don’t exist in some strange weird way and, while focusing on that, feeling happy. That’s enough. It really comes down to the same thing as focusing on Buddha-nature because a feeling of happiness is what comes from the network of positive force and an understanding of voidness comes from the network of deep awareness. It’s just a different way of working with the same thing. On the basis of this conscious experience during the empowerment, then with further stimulation, that experience will grow. 

This is what an empowerment is all about. The ceremony and all the ritual around it provide a very special milieu for feeling inspired, taking the vows and having these experiences. 

Without taking the empowerment properly – which means feeling inspiration, taking the vows, making a commitment of how we’re going to practice, and having some sort of conscious experience during the empowerment – our tantric practice afterwards is not going to be effective. To actually receive an empowerment, we need inspiration, vows and a conscious experience.

The importance of having a qualified teacher and feeling inspired by the teacher should not be underestimated. If we don’t feel inspiration from the teacher, if there’s no connection with the teacher, then the energy in our practice is going to be quite low. It’s very important to have that inspiration.

Seeing the Spiritual Teacher as Inseparable from the Buddha-Figure

In parts of our tantra practices, we imagine our spiritual teacher in the form of the Buddha-figure in front of us and then imagine that they dissolve into us and we arise as the Buddha-figure inseparable from our teacher. Whether the teacher is actuality a realized Buddha or not, with all the powers of a Buddha, is not the point, but what we’re focusing on is the fully realized Buddha-nature of the spiritual teacher. We’re looking at all the teacher’s Buddha-nature factors functioning on that resultant level. Seeing the teacher in this way, as inseparable from the Buddha-figure, allows us certainly to receive stronger inspiration from the teacher, and gives us more confidence in the possibility of having a fully realized Buddha-nature. It becomes a source of inspiration and energy throughout the practice. If we are unable to see our teacher, who is so much more qualified than we are, as a Buddha in the form of this figure, how will we ever be able to see ourselves in our tantra practice as an enlightening Buddha-figure?

Another point is that, during the empowerment, we make a commitment to the teacher. The commitment is always to keep the vows, but, in addition, there is often a practice commitment, and that will be set by the teacher. In most cases, it’s to do a daily sadhana practice every day for the rest of our lives. These practices are highly repetitious. We’re doing the same thing every day, and we need inspiration and energy to be able to keep it up. We get that energy certainly from understanding what we’re doing, but the inspiration that comes from the teacher is really very, very crucial. Whether we actually spend physical time with the teacher or not – or a lot of time, or a little time – it doesn’t matter. It’s not necessary that we spend a lot of time with the teacher, but we need to be inspired by them.

Whether during the empowerment or during our daily practice, it’s not that the teacher inseparable from the Buddha-figure is somebody separate, independently existing over there in front of us, and we’re independently existing here. If we both truly existed in that way, we could not interact, let alone become inseparable. We need to integrate ourselves fully with the teacher as a Buddha in the form of the Buddha-figure, and this is the point of what’s referred to as “guru-yoga.” Although we could do guru-yoga – maybe do that as a preliminary, and it’s definitely part of every sadhana practice – although we could do it with just a visualization of some historical figure, let’s say Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) in the form of one of these Buddha-figures, or Tsongkhapa, or whatever, the practice has much, much more energy if there’s a living teacher that we’ve had some sort of contact with. Even if the contact is in a big audience with 20,000 people, as is the case when receiving an empowerment from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there’s some sort of personal experience. And when we actually witness someone like the Dalai Lama, it gives us far more inspiration than when merely imagining the founder of our tradition. Often, in fact, we will imagine the teacher and the founder of a lineage and the Buddha-figure all as one. 

Of course, the teacher needs to be qualified, and our relationship with that teacher needs to be a healthy one, not one that is mixed with disturbing emotions, such as, “I know better than you!” and arrogance, getting angry with them for this or that reason, or being overly attached. It has to be free of these disturbing emotions. It needs to be a healthy, mature relationship, and that’s not easy because, after all, when we have a strong grasping to a solid “me,” we tend to think that we’re special. If we sincerely look at the teacher as a Buddha, well, a Buddha has equal concern for everybody. Nobody is special to a Buddha, or everybody’s equally special. The point is that a Buddha is equal to everybody, and so when we get inspiration from the teacher, we shouldn’t think in terms of “Ooh, I’m so special.” Afterall, we don’t think we’re so special when we get warm from the sun. In the end, the work for making spiritual progress is something we each have to do ourselves.

These are difficult points, I must say. Although seeing the teacher inseparable from the Buddha-figure is mentioned and emphasized in all the tantra practices, it’s really not easy. We really need to work very hard to understand that in a way that it will work in a healthy manner. Also, I think we need to be realistic in terms of “I don’t feel equally inspired all the time. I don’t feel inspired to do my practice all the time.” It’s samsara after all. The basic nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. Of course, our level of inspiration, our level of practice, is going to go up and down. We need to go on, whether our mood is good or bad, whether or not we feel terribly inspired or not. Just do it.

If we can recall the good qualities of the teacher, the kindness of the teacher, and so on, and integrate that into our tantra practice, it will help us to sustain our energy level, our inspiration, even if its level is not dramatic. 

To sum up, it’s important to be discriminating in terms of the teacher from whom we receive an empowerment. But first, before receiving the empowerment, we need to be sufficiently prepared and willing to keep the vows and maintain the practice. Then, the teacher conferring the empowerment needs to be qualified, and we need to feel some sort of connection, some sort of inspiration from the teacher. If any of those three are missing, we’re going to have some problems.

These are the essential points for practicing tantra effectively.