Tantra: The Pathway and Resultant Levels

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The Sakya Presentation of Inseparable Samsara and Nirvana

The pathway level of the continuity is referring to partially purified, partially unpurified, so there’s some stoppings there. To understand how that is an everlasting stream of continuity, I think the most helpful is the Sakya explanation of inseparable samsara and nirvana, that there are two quantum levels, at least two, at which things can work – our energy can vibrate, in a sense – a samsaric level and a nirvanic level, so that positive force can either produce a samsaric situation, of improved samsara – uncontrollably recurring existence with problems and so on – or it could produce a purified state, liberated or enlightened, because it’s not dependent on the positive force itself, it’s dependent on how much the fleeting obscurations prevent it from functioning on a purified level.

From that point of view, you would say that the positive force itself and deep awareness itself, those networks, are inseparably samsaric and nirvanic. You have to look at the definition of the word inseparable. “Inseparable” – it’s not the best translation, but it’s hard to come up with another one – means that if one is the case so is the other. That’s what inseparable means. If it’s the case that the positive force and deep awareness networks can generate a samsaric situation, it’s also equally the case that they can generate a nirvanic situation as well. They’re both equal probabilities in terms of quantum levels. If understood in that way, the Sakya presentation is really very helpful, not at all weirdo esoteric, that “Just being here is perfect and it’s nirvana in our samsara,” it doesn’t refer to that.

[See: Relationships with Objects. See also: Relationships between Objects in Anuttarayoga Tantra]

We can see from one sense it’s purified, from another sense it’s unpurified, and this is relevant in tantra practice, because similarly another Buddha-nature factor would be the subtlest energy – just the fact that we have a mind, we have mental activity – and just the fact that we have some energy of that – that’s another way of looking at that mental activity – and the fact that that energy communicates, it goes out. Those are the most fundamental Buddha-nature aspects of body, speech, and mind. That energy has some sort of appearance, it’s physical, it gives rise to appearances – remember, we had the definition of mental activity: it gives rise to appearances and cognizes them – so that’s body; and that goes out, in a sense emanates – that’s communication, that’s speech, subtle. This energy that gives rise to appearances, which is a basic Buddha-nature factor, it can give rise to samsaric appearances or it could give rise to nirvanic appearances.

We could understand that on two levels, at least. One would be: it can give rise to appearances of true existence – that would be samsaric appearances, or it could give rise to appearances of dependently arising existence – nirvanic, non-true existence, as Gelugpa would use the term. On another level we can say that it can give rise to a samsaric appearance of our usual ordinary forms, or it can give rise to the so-called pure appearances of Buddha-figures, these yidams. So the practice with these Buddha-figures is something which has no beginning and no end, because the mental continuum, the Buddha-nature factors of the subtlest energy, subtlest body, these sort of things, can always be presented as having those two levels, dependent on the amount of obscuration that is covering it. That’s pretty profound, actually, pretty profound – and it doesn’t at all mean that they are archetypes in the mind, as it were. That’s not quite it either. It’s not so concrete.

Can I restate that? A Buddha can appear in any form in order to benefit others. Because of that, a Buddha can appear in these Buddha-figure forms as a pathway leading to enlightenment, so we can use them as structures, in the sense of tantra being a warp to weave on all these aspects of sutra, so we can have all these arms and faces and so on, represent different things. There are many benefits of working with Buddha-figures in our meditation. Let’s speak about that a little later. Also a Buddha can manifest in these forms on a resultant level. But basically, why would a Buddha appear in these forms? It would be to benefit others, to help others. That’s why a Buddha would do anything, so it means on a pathway level.

It isn’t that a Buddha just has a fixed set of forms and chooses from the repertoire, from the closet, as it were, “What form am I going to put on today and appear in to help this one or that one?” It would arise spontaneously, as an automatic response without effort, without conscious plan. So you can’t say that any particular form is present on the mind-stream as an archetype that would be there.

The Analogy of a Hologram

These days I’m reading a book by Michael Talbot called The Holographic Universe, which is very interesting in terms of how a hologram is made from the interference patterns of two sources of waves of energy. If you have the neurons, the neural network in the mind, each neuron is sending out waves, so they’re creating interference patterns as they crisscross each other and that provides the actual physical basis for holograms. So our perception is actually holographic externally, and imagination and perception is also holographic internally – if we can use those terms in a loose manner.

What’s interesting, of course, is with a hologram, any one particular tiny section can generate a whole hologram. If you have a holographic plate, you don’t have to have the whole thing to generate the whole hologram – a little piece will generate the whole thing, sort of like fractals. In that one tiny little piece, you can’t say that you have a distinct pattern of everything.

You can have many pictures superimposed in a hologram and so, depending on the angle of light that’s sent through it, you get different holograms. So this is quite suggestive that – if we speak in terms of our subtlest energy – that subtlest energy can work on a holographic type of principle such that, depending on the mental activity that’s associated with it, like the angle of the light – I don’t want to take the clear light too literally as an actual light – but that clear light mental activity, depending on the angle of it, the energy will manifest a different hologram. That hologram could be a samsaric one, or it could be in the form of any type of Buddha-figure, without any of them actually being, in a sense, concretely present on the mental continuum, as if the mental continuum were a photographic plate.

What’s even more amazing is that we can work from that basis of that tiny little unit of subtlest energy that could generate any of these holograms – well, it could be generated on many levels. It could be generated conceptually, that would be our visualizations, what we would say in the imagination, you generate the hologram of the Buddha-figure, because it is our energy, basically the energy associated with our own everlasting mental continuum that is appearing in that form of the hologram. So that’s in the imagination. If one is able to add to that energy a sufficient amount of positive force – that’s why “force” is much better than “potential” for “merit” – if you can add enough positive force to it which is enlightenment-building, then you can actually generate the energy externally as well, so that it’s not on an imaginary level, but that the hologram will actually be what we call an illusory body in the highest class of tantra, which is what you achieve on the stage of an arya.

So it’s a big quantum leap when it really is partially purified, partially unpurified – some true stoppings. If you reach that level, then the hologram will be able to manifest like an external phenomenon. It’s the same thing of why you can, if you imagine your body being healed and generate that type of hologram in the imagination, that with enough force, it can actually affect your physical body, as a hologram, as another level of hologram.

The two levels of hologram are inseparable: inseparable samsara and nirvana – a physical level and an imaginary level. Samsaric being the imaginary one, sort of imaginary hologram, or hologram in our imagination – that’s a very Western way of saying it, as if the imagination were some sort of theater, a stage in our heads. From a Buddhist point of view it would be conceptual and non-conceptual; imagination would be conceptual.

We have that type of everlasting stream on the pathway level in which the energy, with no beginning, no end, can have these configurations, these holograms as yidams, as Buddha-figures. And that’s there as a – if you want to look at it as a probability function, or however you want to look at it – it is the case, inseparably, true, as is the case that our energy can give rise to all the different actual physical forms that we have as that mental continuum generates one lifetime after another lifetime.

It’s like, from the subtlest energy, just as it could, depending on how the clear light mind with the motivation, the aim, and the practice can generate one yidam form or another yidam form, and it’s coming from the network of positive force – if you want to look at it strictly sutra level – it’s that positive force, which is giving energy or force to that subtlest energy, that enlightenment-building one done with tantra practice will then have that energy appear as a hologram in the various yidam forms. But similarly, if that force – now here we can speak of either positive or negative force from constructive karma or destructive karma – if it’s samsara-building force behind that that’s energizing the subtlest level of energy, striking that – I’m tempted to use “subtlest drop” from Kalachakra terminology – that subtlest drop, that kernel as it were, that in a sense almost is an infinite template of all forms, but not in an undifferentiated glob, not that sort of way. But if it’s that samsara-building force that hits it, then it could generate a hologram in any form of the six realms as a rebirth state – and that’s what happens. That mental continuum can give rise to an appearance of any of the rebirth states, those beings in any of the rebirth states, in any species therein. And if that is the case, then inseparably it’s also the case that that subtlest drop can give rise to any yidam form as well, any Buddha-figure form.

Do you follow? Let's take a moment to reflect on that.


Amplification of the Hologram Analogy from Kalachakra

Another very suggestive point from hologram theory – I’m developing this as another way of explaining things – is that each point, as I said, each small area of the holographic photographic plate can generate the entire hologram. So similarly – let’s stick with the Kalachakra terminology, I like it – each mental continuum in terms of Buddha-nature not only has subtlest mind and subtlest body in terms of subtlest energy, but – Kalachakra point of view – subtlest speech in terms of subtlest vibration of that energy, and subtlest creative drop, which is responsible for the blissful aspect of it. But there’s a subtlest creative drop, sometimes called the blue drop. This subtlest drop, if we take it in terms of our hologram discussion as being what allows, as a creative drop, for the creation or generation of any type of hologram, either samsaric or nirvanic, then in each mental continuum, although the subtlest creative drop is individual, as is that mental continuum, each subtlest drop can give rise to every appearance equally, the same. Each one can give rise to the whole hologram.

Now, depending on the angle of the positive force that’s energizing – what is it made of? It’s made of subtlest energy. When these subtle drops, on a grosser level in the subtle body, the four drops in Kalachakra, are stained with karmic habits, which is how it’s explained in Kalachakra, then, like the subtlest winds are like the paintbrush that dips into these drops and then paints the various appearances of being awake, or dreaming, or deep sleep, or peak blissful experiences, it paints the appearances of either the sensations, or visual images, or whatever, sounds and so on. It gives rise to these. So in each person, in each individual mental continuum, there is the possibility of giving rise to any samsaric or any nirvanic appearance equally. Which one will arise depends on – from a karmic situation – how that hologram is influenced by the karma of that individual; but all possibilities are there equally.

Similarly, because of the totality of everything, if you speak in terms of the interference patterns of all the energy externally, that would also reflect on the subtlest creative drop. So, on an enlightenment level, a resultant level, then each subtlest creative drop can be the basis for omniscience, the omniscience of a Buddha, which will be individual for each mental continuum, but be equally omniscient in knowing everything. Just like each tiny little portion of a holographic plate can generate the whole thing.

The same thing is true – it’s even more far out – the same thing is true on the external level. Kalachakra always speaks about the parallel between external and internal, macrocosm and microcosm. So just as you have the subtlest creative drop – or the blue dot sometimes it’s called – on each mental continuum, internally, as part of it; another way of looking at it: they all are the same essential nature. It’s referring to the same thing, just from different points of view. Likewise, you have in terms of the external phenomena what’s called space particles.

A space particle is basically the origin of any universe – in terms of the cycle of expansion, stability, and then coming apart, and then the empty eons – the basis, what continues, what is the continuum. It’s not that matter is created anew – it can’t be like that – by some external figure. There is this, whether you talk of it as a potential, or what’s spoken of as the dissociated state of the particles, the smallest level, when the laws of physics don’t operate any more – coming from the laws of karma, basically – that will be the origin of any universe.

Likewise, you have infinite universes, infinite extension, infinite space, infinite time. Each one could give rise to any type of universe. But the type of universe that it will give rise to, from a samsaric point of view, will be in terms of the karma of the beings that will be born in that universe. On a nirvanic level, it will give rise to Buddha-fields. And, again, depending on… just as internally it could give rise to different yidams to benefit others, in response to others, because it’s responsive, it’s the communication, the subtlest speech aspect; so similarly, on an external level, the space particles can give rise to a Buddha-field of Amitabha, a Buddha-field of Akshobhya, a Buddha-field of Vajrayogini, whatever. So it works on that sort of level.

This also fits in very well with superstring theory. The subtlest thing that makes up all the forces, all matter, all energy, are these subtlest strings. It just depends on how it’s vibrating in either eleven or twenty-six dimensions, depending on how you solve the equations. How it’s vibrating in each of these dimensions and so on will give rise to various particles and forces and things like that. They have a similar thing in Kalachakra. Within the blue dot – it’s really far out – they say that there’s a black hairline. What in the world is that referring to? It’s very suggestive of a superstring vibrating, as another aspect of subtlest creative drop, subtlest space particle. Anyway, these are my latest thoughts of the day.


Could you clarify a little bit about universes? Why is the universe in the form that it is now, the one that we live in?

It’s because of the karma of the beings to be reborn in this universe. That the universe is of this shape and form, that’s explained in Kalachakra in terms of there is the karma for the planets to go around in their orbits at certain lengths of time and all this sort of stuff. The astronomical forces are karmic forces on an external level and internally we have the karmic forces within our bodies – and these are parallel to each other. Just as there are ten heavenly bodies, there are ten energy winds within the body going through their cycles. So it’s a parallel type of thing.

When we speak about understanding voidness, when we speak about dedication of positive force or merit, is it the case that we’re only talking about energy?

No. That’s one aspect. Looked at from one point of view, yes, all of that has a level that’s dealing with energy. Looked at from another point of view, all of that is mental activity. That mental activity could be accompanied with understanding, with confusion, with bodhichitta, with compassion, clinging, arrogance – it can be accompanied with any type of mental factor. The same phenomenon looked at from another point of view is a configuration of energy. That’s what it means, as I was saying, this poor translation, they’re “one by nature.” It means that they have the same essential nature; they’re referring to the same thing from two different points of view. They’re essentially talking about one phenomenon, but are two “logical isolates” is the technical term.

A logical isolate – you can isolate each aspect by saying that it’s what’s left over when you exclude everything that it’s not. It’s just a logical operation. You exclude everything that it’s not and that isolates what it is. If you exclude all mental activity – just to make a very simple example – it’s not mental activity. So what is it? It’s an energy, it’s what’s left over. It isolates that. We’re looking at the same phenomenon. If you exclude all the energy aspects what’s left over is mental activity. It’s talking about the same thing, it’s just in terms of what you want to isolate logically. You can’t isolate it actually, just logically. It’s called a logical isolate, sometimes translated as the “double negative,” which doesn’t give very much meaning.

Does that mean that the two are not mutually pervasive?

Yes, it means that. In other words, if you can exclude one and you’re left with the other, then they don’t pervade each other, they’re not total equivalents. So that’s right, one by nature does not mean total equivalent. The two truths are one by nature. They’re not equivalent. The two truths share the same essential nature. They’re referring to a particular phenomenon, but just two truths about it. What it is and how it exists – two truths about the same thing. Not two views. Two truths. Two true statements about it. Two true facts about it. Certainly not two levels of truth. It’s not that one is more true than the other. There’s no Tibetan or Sanskrit word “level” there. Both equally true. One is deceptive, however – the appearance of what it is. It’s deceptive, because it hides how it actually exists, but they’re both equally true. It’s true that it appears like this.

In the definition of mental activity, you say you have energy and then you have mental activity as being two separate…

Two ways of looking at the same thing: mental activity and energy. Two ways of describing the same phenomenon.

So within that same phenomenon, there’s energy and mental activity?

No it’s not that there are two things there, energy and mental activity. They are just logical isolates; it is not that they are actually separate.

How would you define mental activity?

It can be described from two aspects. One is the activity of giving rise to a cognitive appearance. The other is cognizing it in some way. That’s happening, merely that, without there being any separate, concrete me making it happen or separate concrete mind as the instrument that’s making it happen. It is the same activity described from two points of view, and you could also describe that activity from the point of view of the energy – it’s not so easy, it’s a different way of looking at things.

Does that mental activity include sense phenomena?

Sense phenomena would be the objects of that mental activity. Mental activity always has an object, it always has content. Those would be the objects. It depends what you mean by sense objects. There is the external sense object, there’s the mental representation of the sense object that the mental activity gives rise to, and then there’s the whole issue of the commonsense object. Is there a commonsense object?

We were discussing this in terms of the four traditions. Actually what we perceive is just one sense field. So the sensibilia, let’s say colored shape, well this cup, actually all I see is an orange shape. There’s a mental representation of an orange shape that I see, but the cup is not just an orange shape, is it? If I close my eyes and hold this in my hand, I get a completely different type of sense data. So what is the cup? It is a hologram made of putting together these different sense fields, sense information, isn’t it?

Is there a commonsense cup? What is there? That’s a very interesting question. The non-Gelug schools emphasize that the commonsense cup is really a conceptual hologram. It is only known conceptually. It only can be known conceptually, because in fact with the senses you can only know one sense aspect of it. Also, you can only know one moment of it at a time. A commonsense object endures over time. How do you know an object that exists over time, if you can only perceive one moment at a time? So it’s conceptual, a conceptual hologram.

But Gelugpa emphasizes, “Watch out just saying that it’s a conceptual hologram, because if it’s only a conceptual hologram, the danger is that you’ll think that everything just exists in your imagination and it tends toward solipsism and the Chittamatra extreme,” or let’s say a poor understanding of the Chittamatra extreme. The Chittamatra view allows for everybody to see the cup, but of course each of us sees it from a different angle, so we’re not seeing the same thing.

The non-Gelug would say that there’s no common locus externally for the cup. Each of us is just, from our karma, perceiving a mental representation from a certain angle and distance. And because of collective karma, we are seeing what seems to be the same cup at the same time. But there’s no actual common locus to it separate from a perception of it, because how would you know it? If you knew it, it was connected to perception, so how would you know that there’s one separate from perception? This is a very good point.

The Gelug would say, “Watch out, all of this tends toward solipsism if it’s not really understood well.” So Gelug would say, “Conventionally you’d have to say there’s a common locus.” There is a common locus even within the Chittamatra view – that is a big difference between Gelug and non-Gelug Chittamatra – the common locus of the cup that we’re all seeing. That fits in with the Gelug Sautrantika theory of perception that you’d have to say we see commonsense objects and that that is not just a hologram in our heads, in our imaginations. It’s an external hologram. It’s not just that externally only orange shapes exist. Granted that we can only either see orange shapes or feel physically certain sensations in our hand.

It’s very interesting. Like that the various Tibetan traditions give us slightly different views and point out the dangers that one can fall to. It’s the same thing with these Buddha-figures. Are they only in our heads, or are they real? Are they separate figures? Do they have their own mental continuum? Is Tara actually a being and so on?

Both, all of them. Tara could be an actual mental continuum that at one point generated itself in the form of Tara, but all of us, all of our mental continuums – that subtlest creative drop – could generate a Tara. That particular one might have been the first one in our eon or our world age to manifest in a Tara form. Fine, lovely. Given a fixed period of time within infinite time of a particular universe, somebody has to have been the first. On a larger scale – no beginning, no end – there’s nobody who is the first, the original Tara.

We have the basis level of an everlasting continuum, of a tantra, Buddha-nature factors that we all have. We can describe them in many, many different systems: the two networks, positive force and deep awareness; or in the Sakya system we speak about body, speech, mind qualities and enlightening influence or activity. The five types of deep awareness are just a further classification within mind in that scheme. There are many different ways of specifying these Buddha-nature factors. The Kalachakra way with these subtlest mind, wind, speech, and creative drop, that’s another way of talking about Buddha-nature factors.

Then the resultant level of tantra would be the Buddha-bodies, the everlasting continuity of the Buddha-bodies. There are many different presentations of the Buddha-bodies or corpuses of them, but whichever way we refer to them, or describe them, those would be fully purified functioning of these basis factors. In other words, there’s a true stopping of all the obscurations that would prevent those basis factors from functioning fully. If we look at it from the point of view of these factors themselves, then the factors remain the same, whether we’re speaking on the basis, pathway, or resultant levels. From that point of view, Kagyu and Nyingma always say they’re permanent. They are forever, unaffected. They are in essence unaffected by the obscurations.

Gelugpa point of view would say, of course, they’re affecting variables in the sense that their functioning is affected, and they affect our experience. So they would say it’s affected. Non-Gelug, Kagyu, and Nyingma say they’re unaffected. They are talking about it from two different points of view. They are eternal. From that point of view they’re permanent, if you use permanent to mean eternal. They are impermanent: they change from moment to moment, but they are unaffected in the sense that they’re always there. Their basic nature is not affected. How they manifest is affected by the obscurations, whether it’s fully obscured, partially obscured – as an arya with some true stoppings – or totally free of all obscuration.

If there’s the positive force of a good deed, is it just a matter of our obscurations what it manifests as, samsara or nirvana?

Yes, but we need to be a little bit more specific here. What really is going to be a crucial factor is the dedication. Is it together with a samsaric aim, or together with a liberation or enlightenment aim? Because even if it’s together with a liberation or enlightenment aim – this is a very important point – until we are an arhat, a liberated being, there’s always disturbing emotions.

We’re not free of disturbing emotions – this is what His Holiness has always said – we do positive things and you try to have as positive a motivation as possible – using the Western word motivation – love and compassion. Of course there’s going to be some selfishness there and attachment, don’t kid yourself. “I’m helping you because partially I’d like you to like me. It makes me feel good. I’m doing it to make myself feel good.” These are all self-centered aims, they’re part of it, nothing to be ashamed of. We are samsaric beings, of course it’s going to be like that. “What do you expect from samsara?” Not until we’re a liberated being is that not going to be the case. It’s not so much whether that positive force has been gathered with disturbing emotion or not, it’s the dedication that’s important.

Now, of course that positive force can be rededicated, that’s the nice Mahayana thing. It can be rededicated, redirected, because it’s a network of all the positive force from all the different things that we’ve done – that’s important to understand – it’s a network. It’s not so much that one particular deed ripens in one thing, independent of everything else. How they’re all networked together is influencing how the force from one deed ripens in something. So you can change that network, bring that positive force to another quantum level, direct it to something else. So, like that, we have to be a little bit more specific here. Not be too idealistic in terms of that “the bodhichitta has to be perfect, and it has to be with a full understanding of voidness,” and all this sort of stuff. Of course, the less disturbing emotions, the quicker we will be able to operate on a purified level. That is also the case.

One teacher said that one can dedicate the positive force of all the bodhisattvas. What about dedicating someone else’s positive force, what does that mean?

It’s hard to say. What we can do is provide causes. There are two points here. When you say dedicating the bodhisattvas’ positive force, they’ve already dedicated it. What we can do is add our positive force, in a sense network it with theirs. How that actually functions I really don’t know. I haven’t really analyzed that so deeply. It would probably be like this.

How is it that by our prayers, we’re able to, affect somebody else’s karma, “I dedicate this to you.” What that means can be understood on many levels. “I dedicate all my virtues, my positive force to benefit others,” can be understood on the level that “Because of my positive force I’ve gone to school, I have an education, I have this talent and that talent, and I’m going to dedicate it to others,” meaning “I’m going to use it to benefit others.” That’s one level of meaning.

Another level of meaning is that our prayers and all these things can act as a circumstance for others’ positive karma, positive force, to ripen more quickly. They have to provide the causes for it to ripen and they have to provide the positive force, the positive karma from their side, on their mental continuums. But our prayers, our dedication and so on can network with theirs in a sense, act as a circumstance for things to ripen more quickly that otherwise might stay below the surface – let’s say the karma to overcome a sickness, or to be reborn in some pure land or whatever.

Likewise, I think, it’s just my thought of the moment, we could network our positive force with the positive force of the bodhisattvas so that their inspiration – often translated as “blessings” – their inspiration from their positive force, thinking about all their great deeds and these things, could act as a circumstance for our positive force to ripen more quickly into enlightenment – but of course we have to have the positive force from our side. I think that this makes sense in terms of all the various aspects of the teaching. Rejoicing does that as well. Rejoicing is another way of networking with the positive force of others that then increases the intensity of our positive force, the bliss factor that Kalachakra speaks of.

When we call up the image of Tara, then isn’t it a bit egotistical that I’m calling it up? Shouldn’t it be that they are in a sense providing this image?

Well, we have to go back to the definition of mental activity – giving rise to appearances, cognizing them: this is talking about the same phenomenon from two different points of view, the same activity, with the word “mere” added to it, which means that activity occurs without there being a separate me or a separate anybody else making it happen, controlling it, or observing it. This type of practice has to be done with the understanding of voidness. Otherwise the type of confusion that you express with, “Isn’t it a bit arrogant for me to call this up?” There is no separate “me” calling this up from some separate mind as an entity which is the storage chest for this, or from a collective unconscious as a universal storage chest. It’s not like that at all. It’s just mental activity.

That is why the Sakya approach to voidness meditation is very useful here. All appearances are mental activity. Mental activity arises from the force of karma – you could extend that, it can arise from the force of bodhichitta or these sorts of things – so coming from the mind as it were, from mental activity influenced by that. But that mental activity is devoid of true existence, and then from that go to the deepest level, clear light level. It’s very useful – and one doesn’t have to change traditions and now follow Sakya, but one appreciates this type of approach and can supplement our own Gelug understanding of absence of inherent existence that we learn in the Gelug tradition – if that’s our tradition – or a Nyingma approach, or a Kagyu approach.