Tantra: The Basis Level

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We’re going to be speaking about tantra and various aspects of it. I’ll try to leave a little bit of time open for more questions in order to give you an opportunity to ask different things that might be of interest to you concerning the topic.

Sutra Study and Practice

The Mahayana practice to enlightenment has two levels of practice: the sutra level and the tantra level. In order to begin to understand a little bit of the difference between the two, let’s look at the meaning of the words “sutra” and “tantra.” The word “sutra” is a Sanskrit word and it means “threads,” also “theme of practice,” and that fits very well into the meaning of “tantra.” We have all these different threads or themes of practices that we get in sutra – themes such as safe direction or refuge, renunciation, bodhichitta, voidness, karma, all these sort of things, compassion, love, and so on – and then “tantra,” in Sanskrit, means “the warp of a loom,” the strings of the loom that you would weave these threads on. The point of tantra, from this etymology in Sanskrit, is that it provides a structure upon which we can interweave all the sutra themes, all the threads of sutra. This is an important point to keep in mind.

When we study and practice the various themes that come in sutra, let’s say through a graded stage type of procedure like lam-rim, we may go through the procedure, the stages, one by one. And it’s very important to follow them in their proper order, because they are cumulative and build on each other. Only when we really have sincerely reached a certain level is it possible to sincerely go on to the next, in terms of our own personal development. Of course we can study them and learn about them, that’s one thing, but in terms of our own personal development…

To use a simple example, which is not so simple, in terms of rebirth, obviously we need to have some understanding of rebirth and a belief that it actually exists, and on the initial scope take it seriously enough so that we really think in terms of wanting to continue to have a precious human life, not just in this lifetime, and therefore building up the causes that will allow us to continue having that precious human life, thinking very specifically, and almost concretely, of our future lives and how we can insure that we’ll be able to continue practicing. It’s only on that basis of really seriously thinking of future lives that we could possibly want to get liberated from rebirth in terms of the intermediate scope. How could we possibly want to get liberated from rebirth, if we don’t believe in rebirth and we’re not taking it seriously and working at least on a conventional level to ensure that so long as we are taking rebirth we have a precious human life?

Like that, we go through the stages cumulatively, build on one another, but the various insights that we gain and work with on these different steps need to be interwoven. It’s very important to be able to go back after we’ve gone through the process – even while we’re going through the process – and try to network together all the various realizations, because each time that we go through these materials and try to fit them together in varying ways, we gain deeper and deeper insight.

Often I use the analogy of the Dharma study being like being presented a vast jigsaw puzzle, and we’re given various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, and we need to put them together, and these pieces fit together in many different ways, many different dimensions and levels, it’s not just in one way. And so the challenge and the adventure of study and practice is to find more and more varied ways of fitting the pieces together, of networking them. It’s not just that one piece fits into another, but more on the analogy of a network, that each interconnects with each other piece.

Tantra Study and Practice to Put Together the Realizations from Sutra

Although we can work on that on a sutra level – and it’s very important to work on that on a sutra level – we also need to, of course, weave in all the tantra points as well. But what we really need to be able to do, if we want to become a Buddha, is to have all these realizations and all these insights simultaneously. This is the meaning, the etymological meaning of “tantra,” that we find here. It provides a warp, or a basis, upon which we can interweave all these themes, so that we can practice trying to have them simultaneously manifest and active in our understanding, in our feeling, in our conduct and so on.

This is one of the reasons why we work with these Buddha-figures, yidams they’re called in Tibetan, sometimes translated as “deities.” I don’t particularly care for the term “deity,” since it’s a bit too theological, and we’re not talking about gods here, either in a biblical creator sense, or in a Greek or Indian sense of those type of figures, so I call them “Buddha-figures.” We work with them as warps of a loom. They have many, many arms, and legs, and faces, and are holding various things, and stepping on various things, and all of those have many levels of representation.

They represent not just one, but several levels of insights or realizations, various points that we are trying to maintain simultaneous awareness of, and integrate all together, weave them together. This is what we try to do and one of the great challenges in tantra is, when we are visualizing or imagining ourselves in the form of these figures, to try to likewise maintain simultaneously the realization and, if we’re working in terms of our conduct, the implementation of all the different points, like the six far-reaching attitudes, or six perfections, that a set of six arms might represent.

We have a slight equivalency of this in sutra, in the sense of a root text. Root texts are texts that act as roots from which many different understandings can grow. In that sense it’s a root. Each of the understandings, each of the levels of interpretation derives from that root. We have these great Indian texts, which are filled with demonstrative pronouns: this’s and that’s. For many of us Westerners who grasp for specificity and for “the one truth” – this is sort of our legacy from the Bible, “one God, one truth” – so it must have one meaning. “What does it really mean?” is what we’d like to learn, and grasp for. Often we feel uncomfortable when we’re told that something could have several meanings and then, “Which is the real meaning?” “Well, they’re all equally valid!”

That is something we need to learn to be comfortable with. When we have these root texts and they’re filled with this’s and that’s, and you read a line, “This is that, because of this,” and you get infuriated with that type of language, we need to remember that it’s written that way for a purpose. My root teacher Serkong Rinpoche used to say, “Don’t be so arrogant to think that Nagarjuna and these great masters were stupid and bad writers, that they couldn’t write clearly. Of course they could write clearly if they wanted to, but they wrote this way on purpose.” That purpose was a pedagogic purpose to give us a teaching and learning tool so that when we recite the text from memory, which was always the intention, then as we recite it we try to fill in the meanings ourselves. Again, it’s a framework. And by having to fill in the meaning ourselves, not just reciting, “This is that, because of this,” and being satisfied with “This is that, because of this,” but filling it in, then it provides a very effective method for training our minds to hold various understandings.

As we learn different levels of interpretation of these texts, let’s say if we’re talking about a Madhyamaka text, there may be a Svatantrika understanding of the line, there may be a Prasangika understanding of the line, and so within our own commentarial tradition we might find several levels of meaning of the line. And of course, if we study different commentaries, even within our own lineage, we find radically different interpretations of the line. And if we go beyond our own lineage and look at commentaries from many lineages, then our scope of understanding increases proportionately. This is a method which is analogous in sutra – and in tantra as well, in some of the tantra texts, but more so in sutra.

Here, however, in tantra, we’re working not just with this sort of level of interpretive meaning, of what a text means in terms of very specific types of statements or lists or things like that, we’re working more with putting together items such as love, compassion, the sixteen types of voidness, the thirty-seven factors leading to a purified state, and so on. All these lists of realizations and insights that eventually, as a Buddha, we need to be able to have completely in full, all of them. That’s one meaning of “tantra,” from its etymological point of view.

It also indicates to us the advanced level of practice that tantra presents us. Obviously we can’t interweave things if we don’t have those threads already. You have to gather the threads and the threads have to have some sort of substance to them, some actual development of generosity, and ethical discipline, and patience, and perseverance, and mental stability, and discriminating awareness, if we look at the six far-reaching attitudes. Only then does it become meaningful to try to put them together, see how they network together, as represented by, for example, six arms; or the five types of deep awareness, or five Buddha-wisdoms, and clear light mind making six. That would be another level of what six arms could represent. We would try to maintain awareness of those both levels, for example – not very easy. This indicates to us how advanced the tantra practice is.

It’s obviously not something to be afraid of, or to shy away from, and it doesn’t require us to have mastered the various items that we’re interweaving, but to at least have some familiarity with them so that we can start to put them together. Sometimes people are intimidated falsely and that can sometimes arise because of, again, connotations of translation terms that might be a bit misleading. When we speak about the six paramitas, for example, or the ten paramitas – those are Sanskrit words, paramita – when we translate the term as “perfections,” then we tend to think that you have to be perfect and “I’m not perfect.” So that reinforces a bit of low self-esteem, “I’m not good enough because I’m not perfect.” That’s a very unfortunate misinterpretation of the term.

When we look at the etymology of it, it means “far-reaching,” “going far,” “going to the other shore,” as it were. So there are two levels of them. There is the level at which we are – if we want to use the word “perfection” – at which we are perfecting them, we are in the process of perfecting them. Then there’s the level of a Buddha’s six paramitas, at which point they are perfected. In other words, there’s a level of practice that will take us far, to the other side of the shore of samsara and limited abilities to help others, and then the level of a Buddha is when we have gone over to the other shore. In that sense, keeping that sense in mind, I find that “far-reaching attitude” is far more faithful to the original term, both in Tibetan and Sanskrit, and far less misleading.

Tantra Study and Practice to Purify Our Buddha-Natures

There’s another meaning to the word “tantra” that we find in the Tibetan tradition, the Tibetan translation. In order to milk out the meanings of the terms, we need to look at both languages, if we’re working with the Tibetan tradition. This, again, was something that my root teacher Serkong Rinpoche placed a great deal of emphasis on. Root teacher, by the way, here “root” means the root from which you grow. And so the root teacher is not necessarily your first teacher or necessarily the one that has taught you the most, but is the one that you find the most inspiring, because it’s inspiration from the teacher, the teacher’s example and so on, that gives us the strength to grow all along the path. So he always emphasized that every word in the Buddhist technical language is rich with meaning, and it’s important not to gloss over them.

For instance, there are so many epithets of a Buddha. In Sanskrit we have these “tathagata,” and “sugata,” and “jina” and all this sort of stuff. Sometimes what happens is that a translator will just translate them all as “Buddha.” When you do that, you really lose the richness of the language. It’s like when you translate a root text, just filling in the this’s and the that’s in parentheses – which often we do, I certainly was guilty of that in my early days – and you just fill in the meaning from one commentary, and then that’s it. And then, if you try to publish it, let’s say in India as I did, then sometimes the parentheses are left out or they’re dropped, because some editor feels that it’s awkward to read with all these parentheses. It confuses the reader. And then all of a sudden people get the impression that this one commentarial explanation is the actual meaning of the text, and then they’re really thrown off when they read or learn another commentary, or some teacher tries to teach the text and they explain it differently, they’re completely baffled.

Many types of misunderstanding come from the language that’s used in the translation. As Serkong Rinpoche said, each word has a tremendous amount of meaning to it and we need to look at each syllable and try to milk out that meaning as much as possible. He was very instrumental in this whole process that I’ve been going through in my Dharma career, which is to try to revise terminology. Serkong Rinpoche was very encouraging in that, because most of the misunderstanding about Buddhism in the West is because of the terminology and misleading translation terms. He would encourage me to tell him, “Well, what does the English word mean?” and then he’d say, “That’s ridiculous.” And then he would explain what the Tibetan word actually does mean, what the etymology is, what the connotation is and so on. Then it’s just a matter of trying to find some word or phrase that comes closest to that meaning, even if it is a different term from what’s familiar.

So, when we look at the word “tantra,” the way that the Tibetans translated it, they played on another meaning of it, of the word tantra. “Tantra” comes from the verbal root tan which is to “draw out,” or “stretch.” “Tantra” is something which is stretched out, like the warp of a loom, but, as in many languages, words have several meanings. Likewise, one takes this meaning of being stretched out to another level and we have the meaning then of the Tibetan translation of the word “tantra” which means an “everlasting continuity,” something that stretches out forever, with no beginning and no end.

This is a meaning of the word “tantra” that the Tibetans didn’t make up. You have this in Sanskrit as well. For instance in the text by Maitreya called Uttaratantra in Sanskrit, Gyulama in Tibetan – this is a very important text that is central to Tibetan Buddhism – it means The Furthest Everlasting Stream. The word “tantra” here means an everlasting stream and “uttara” means the furthest, or ultimate, or supreme, or deepest – there’s many meanings to that word. There are the references to Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is the everlasting continuity that is the deepest, the ultimate, stretches the furthest, no beginning and no end. It has all these different meanings and levels. This is the connotation of the word “tantra” that the Tibetans emphasized in their translation.

As in the Uttaratantra and its presentation of Buddha-nature, we have three levels of tantras. We have basis, path, and resultant levels. Basis, path, and resultant, as explained in the Uttaratantra, with reference to Buddha-nature, is referring to the unpurified state of Buddha-nature – that’s the basis, when the various obscurations have not yet been purified out. The word “purified” means to achieve a true stopping of fleeting stains. Remember, “fleeting” meant something that could be stopped forever. In other words, one could achieve a true stopping of it. That’s what something that’s fleeting is. To purify it means to stop it truly, so that it never recurs.

The basis level is a level which is unpurified, meaning that there are no true stoppings of any of the obscurations. The path level is referring to the arya level, as in our discussion of the Sangha Jewel of Refuge. The Sangha Jewel of Refuge or safe direction are those who have achieved some true stoppings of the obscurations, but not all of them. Only a Buddha has a complete set of true stoppings and true paths of mind that lead to it and that result from that stopping – lead to it and result from it, like we have the two levels of meaning of the far-reaching attitudes.

The pathway level of tantra is the level at which we have some true stoppings, but not a full set. So that’s referred to as partially purified, partially unpurified. And the resultant level is the level in which it’s fully purified, in other words there’s true stopping of both sets of obscurations, those preventing liberation – which are referring to the disturbing emotions and their legacies, or seeds – and the obscurations preventing omniscience, which are the obscurations regarding all knowable phenomena, and that refers to the habits of grasping for true existence and the factor that prevents our simultaneous cognition of the two truths. That’s a Gelug Prasangika definition of the presentation of the two obscurations. They’re presented differently in different systems. But in toto, they cover the same material. It’s just a matter of how you divide the pie. So the resultant level of tantra has a full stopping of all these obscurations.

What does this actually refer to, then, in terms of tantra practice? It refers to our work with Buddha-nature. I think this is quite essential to understand if we’re going to practice tantra with meaning. The basis level is referring to our various Buddha-nature factors. Buddha-nature is not referring to one particular nature. That’s a little bit of a misleading translation. It’s referring to numerous factors. In Gelug the definition of it is those factors that will transform into – or allow the attainment of – the various Buddha-bodies or “corpuses of a Buddha,” sometimes how I prefer to translate them, because “body” is a little bit too graphic. We’re talking about a corpus, a collection, a network of various things: of gross forms as would be the Nirmanakaya, and subtle forms, which would be Sambhogakaya – another presentation of Sambhogakaya is the speech of a Buddha, the network of various presentations that communicate – and mind of a Buddha, the Dharmakaya, the Jnana Dharmakaya, the deep awareness Dharmakaya is a collection of all the various insights, the omniscience of a Buddha.

One must always be careful when speaking about that deep awareness Dharmakaya to include as well the various, what we would call emotions, in terms of love, compassion, far-reaching attitudes and all those things – that’s part of omniscience as well. It’s not just knowing everything and everyone and how to lead everyone, but also it’s knowing and having the realization of all the Dharma, all these various factors, such as love and compassion.

We have various Buddha-nature factors, which will allow us to reach those goals, various factors which will transform into the corpuses of a Buddha, the Buddha-bodies, and these are innate. Remember, we spoke about the difference between “innate” and “inherent.” “Innate” means they arise simultaneously with each moment. “Inherent” means that they exist findably within something, like the mental continuum, and by their own power make that continuum what it is, and make it exist, as it were. It’s not that these innate aspects give inherent existence to that mind-stream, and make it exist, and make it what it is, by their own power. But these are innate factors that arise simultaneously – and one obviously needs to purify them, in other words, one needs to achieve the true stoppings of the fleeting obscurations, the fleeting stains that prevent them from functioning fully.

The Buddha-Nature Factors

There are many presentations of these factors, what they are, whether we speak of them in terms of potentials or actual factors that are there, but not manifest and not operating, because of the obscurations. There are several ways of discussing these factors.

There are some which are there forever, with no beginning and no end, such as what’s sometimes called the two “collections” – terrible translation, I think. I call them “networks,” two networks, because they are collections – not really collections, “collections” sounds as though you go out and collect them, and then when you get enough stamps, like from the supermarket, you win a toaster oven, but that’s not the image that is so helpful. Rather there are many items or factors that network with each other and we want to strengthen that network by adding to it and expanding it, so we have a network of positive force. That’s sometimes called “merit.” I used to translate it as “positive potential,” but that becomes a bit tricky when you look at more commentaries and more interpretations, so positive force is a little bit better – from constructive behavior. Then there’s the network of deep awareness, different types of deep awareness that we have.

These things also have no beginning and no end, because in terms of beginningless mental activity, or beginningless mind, one would have to say that – well, if you look at it strictly mathematically from a Western point of view, there is very, very slight probability that there’s never been a positive action on that mental continuum, but the probability of that is practically zero, and from a Buddhist logic point of view, one doesn’t consider that as actually a possibility. If the mental continuum is infinite in its duration, then there has to have been something positive, both positive and negative, that that individual mental activity was responsible for. So there’s always been some positive force with no beginning. So that’s a Buddha-nature factor and that can transform into the physical appearances of a Buddha – it’s a force, it’s a type of energy.

The deep awareness is referring, on a most general level, to the five types of deep awareness – "deep,” here in the sense that it has no beginning and is on a very deep level. In terms of the Gelug presentation, these are:

  • Mirror-like deep awareness – “mirror-like” is more like a camera or a microphone, it’s basically just taking in the information
  • Equalizing deep awareness – “equalizing” is basically to see how things fit together, so it’s basically the ability to process information and see the patterns
  • Individualizing deep awareness – within those patterns, to be able to understand or recognize the individuality of a particular instance of something that’s happening
  • Accomplishing awareness – the awareness to relate in some way or another to that information that we see – what kind of pattern it fits into and its individuality, so to relate in an appropriate way to it, in terms of a response
  • Dharmadhatu deep awareness, in other words the sphere of reality deep awareness, or sometimes I just call it reality awareness for short – the awareness of what things are on the conventional level, and deepest level obviously would be referring to the voidness of things, but on a more basis level it’s the openness or flexibility that allows us to change and not stick things just permanently in one category, it allows us to interact. In a conversation, for example, we are open to moods changing and situations changing.

All of these are very basic, no beginning, every life form has those things. The worm takes in information and then can see patterns, so that it knows what’s food and what’s a rock, and knows the individuality of one particular thing, so it goes towards it and knows how to relate. It knows to eat a piece of food, what to do with it. It might not give a name to something, but has some conceptual idea of what something is – food, for example. Everybody has these things with no beginning.

With these networks, there is a level of them, which is samsara-building – often, at least more recently, when I learned a little bit more, I have added these terms – these networks can be either samsara-building, liberation-building, or enlightenment-building networks. What are they going to result in? On a basis level they would just result in samsara, basically, if we speak in terms of positive force or positive potential. Build up positive karma and it improves your samsara, your samsaric existence. That would be the basis level at which these would be functioning. But if we build them with a motivation to achieve liberation or achieve enlightenment, then they become liberation-building or enlightenment-building.

“Motivation” is also an incorrect translation, misleading – I love to deflate people’s ideas; the most basic terms that we work with in Buddhism are often incorrect translations. The word actually is referring to our “aim.” It’s not referring to the emotional reason of why we want to achieve that aim, which is usually what “motivation” means in our language, but it’s the “aim.” The aim for enlightenment – that’s the motivation, for example, in Mahayana, doing this to achieve enlightenment, with the intention to benefit others by that achievement. Then the motivation actually is compassion, from our Western point of view. What’s the reason for it, what is the emotion behind it? The emotion behind it is compassion – in order to alleviate the suffering of others, with a sense of responsibility to do something about it. So what’s very important here is the aim with which we build up positive force or deep awareness and with which we dedicate it. Dedication is very crucial. If we aim that positive action and dedicate it afterwards toward enlightenment, then that positive force goes into the enlightenment-building folder. In term of our internal computer, it’s saved there.

If you ask what is the lower boundary for building up an enlightenment-building network of positive force – pardon the mouthful, that can become jargon too – but if you ask what’s the lower boundary of it, it is when we have what’s called labored bodhichitta. “Labored” means that we are only able to develop that bodhichitta aim by relying on a line of reasoning. We have to go through something like the seven-part cause and effect bodhichitta meditation – everybody’s been our mother, been kind to us, and so on – to be able to actually feel something. That’s the important thing, to feel something, in terms of bodhichitta, that it’s not just words. If we have that, that’s sufficient.

When doing something constructive, if it is generated with that aim or motivation, carried out with that, and dedicated with that – beginning, middle, and end, as we always say in Buddhism, virtuous beginning, middle, and end – then it will add to that enlightenment-building network. So it doesn’t require the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, which is an important point. That’s only a very, very advanced level of how this would contribute. Similarly, if we speak in terms of developing the network of deep awareness, which would be enlightenment-building, that also has to be dedicated with bodhichitta, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively non-conceptual cognition of voidness, which would be its most purified level, but could be with a labored understanding of voidness, in other words, conceptual.

We can speak on that basis level of these networks – that would be a “tantra” – and that basis level network of deep awareness would then be something that can transform into the mind of a Buddha, mental activity of a Buddha, Dharmakaya. When we speak on the basis level, it’s not the samsaric state of those factors themselves, in other words, of the network itself, but rather it’s the situation of that network being obscured, without full stoppings, and how it’s dedicated, what is dedicated, because we can also rededicate positive force of the past.

We usually say, “May all my merit of the past, present, and future...” so that means that we can somehow change the folder that that positive force is in, from the samsara-building folder to the enlightenment-building folder, by dedicating your positive force of the past. You say that in these lines, the thing is to actually mean it, “All my virtues of the past, present, and future,” well, that means something. Those aren’t just nice poetic words. It means something. Everything means something in the teachings. Buddha didn’t just speak empty words. I mean, pardon the pun there. They were empty words in terms of voidness, but he didn’t speak meaningless words. That was unintentional.