Tantra as a Structure on Which to Weave Sutra Practice
This evening I’ve been asked to speak a little bit about tantra in general. When we look at the word tantra, it’s a Sanskrit word and what it means is the warp of a loom. A loom is something that you weave cloth on, and the warp are the strings of this loom that you then weave other strings across in order to make a piece of cloth. The image of that is that tantra is a type of practice that provides a structure onto which we can weave all the different themes of practice that we’ve developed already in sutra. Sutra practice is the basic practice.
Within Buddhism we have a general tradition of Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana covers eighteen different schools, one of which is Theravada (the schools that we have now in Southeast Asia). Mahayana is the form of Buddhism that we have later in India (it goes to Tibet and Mongolia one way; another way, it went to China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam).
So, anyway, tantra falls within Mahayana. Within Mahayana we learn various themes of practice in our sutra training, starting with putting a safe direction (or refuge) in our lives in terms of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, working in that direction; taking advantage of our precious human life; thinking of death and impermanence, and all the various aspects of karma and how this will affect our future lives in terms of what we experience. Then thinking in terms of all the disadvantages of any type of future life that we have, and in terms of being under the influence of disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes, and these karmic impulses, and then developing a strong wish and determination to get out of that (which is called renunciation). On the basis of that, on the basis of ethical discipline, on the basis of concentration, then we develop – wisdom, it’s often called – discriminating awareness of reality, of how we exist, how others exist, in order to overcome what’s causing all the problems and suffering in our uncontrolled recurring existence.
Then in Mahayana we have to develop bodhichitta, which is our mind is focused on our future enlightenment, the enlightenment that we personally, individually are aiming to attain, with the wish to be able to achieve that in order to be able to help others. So it’s based on love and compassion. With that, we develop the far-reaching attitudes (or perfections) of generosity, ethical discipline, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, and mental stability, and, again, discriminating awareness.
That’s a long list of things, isn’t it? These are all the aspects that we cultivate in our practice of sutra. The main ones really being love and compassion, ethical discipline – these far-reaching attitudes – concentration, and especially this understanding of reality, this discriminating awareness (particularly we speak in terms of voidness). Now how do we put all of this together? We put all of this together in our practice of tantra. Tantra is a very advanced practice. It is absolutely – and I can’t underline this enough – not a beginner practice. People who start out their Buddhist practice with tantra most often get into a lot of trouble because of that, because they do not have the foundation. Tantra is an advanced practice for putting together all the things that we’ve learned and trained in before. That’s the etymology of the Sanskrit word tantra.
Mental Continuums as Tantras
When we look at that word from another point of view, it comes from the verb tan, which means to stretch with no break of continuity. From that meaning, we get the way that the Tibetans translated the term, gyu (rgyud), which means an everlasting stream or a continuity. When we speak of this continuity, the first thing of course that comes to mind is the mental continuum. Each of us has an individual mental continuum (called a mind-stream by some translators), and that goes on with no beginning and no end, moment to moment to moment, and individual. This mental continuum, of course, it has contents: We experience various things, like the experiences on the basis of our own previous karma. And also interacting with everybody else and everything in the universe; that also is under the influence of karma. So it’s very complex, what we experience.
Tantra and Buddha-Nature
Another aspect of the everlasting continuity that each of us has is often known as Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature, it’s not just one nature – that’s a little bit of a strange way of translating the term – it’s referring to a certain set of traits or characteristics or features of everybody’s mental continuum which will allow us to become Buddhas. It is what puts us into the family of a Buddha, sometimes called the Buddha-family traits.
We can look at these Buddha-natures, these characteristics, in many, many different ways. If we look in the most general way, we can think in terms of:
- Physical appearance. Everybody has some sort of physical appearance that’s generated from the mental continuum based on karma.
- There’s also communication. There’s some energy with this mental continuum; that energy goes out, and so that forms the basis for communication, speech. It doesn’t necessarily have to be speech itself because all life forms have this that have a mind. And mental functioning. Some level of knowing things, understanding things, perceiving things.
- And various good qualities. Qualities like compassion, even if that compassion is only for yourself, to take care of yourself that you don’t suffer. But these are qualities, good qualities that are there.
- And activity. We’re doing something, whether that’s just surviving, or interacting with others, or whatever.
So these aspects, these five most fundamental aspects – physical appearance, communication, mental functioning, good qualities, activity – these last forever. It’s tantra. No beginning and no end.
Beginningless Continuities of Confusion
There are other qualities, however, that also have no beginning, but which do have an end, and these are known as the fleeting stains. These are stains, in a sense; they obscure and limit the functioning of these Buddha-nature aspects. Things like anger, and unawareness, not understanding things, having confusion, greed, attachment, jealousy, laziness, these sorts of things. They have no beginning. But these are things which can come to an end because, if we increase the power of the good qualities and the capacity of mind to understanding things correctly, it can overpower and eliminate forever these fleeting stains. If you keep your correct understanding all the time, then that incorrect understanding can’t come back. Correct understanding has the backing of validity, logic, experience, etc., and brings happiness. Whereas the incorrect understanding, the confusion – well, there’s nothing that substantiates it, and all it does is bring suffering. So correct understanding can overpower the incorrect understanding. So all the confusion (and the disturbing emotions that are based on that lack of understanding or unawareness) is a fleeting stain. What we of course want to do is get rid of these fleeting stains.
So, when we talk about tantra, tantra is dealing with that mental continuum, that everlasting mental continuum. Now, when we look at texts such as the Uttaratantra by Maitreya – in Tibetan (many people know it by the Tibetan name) Gyulama (rGyud bla-ma), it means an everlasting stream of continuity: gyu (rgyud) is tantra, and lama (bla-ma) or uttara means the everlasting supreme one – and there it speaks about how, when we talk about Buddha-nature, these qualities, these aspects, there are three levels of it:
- There’s the unrefined level; it’s when you have lots of fleeting stains,
- and the partially refined, where you start to get rid of some of them,
- and then the fully refined, which is when all the fleeting stains have been removed and we’re a Buddha.
In other contexts we speak about this as the basis, the pathway, and the resultant stages or levels of tantra. This is really what we’re working with in what is known as tantra practice. The Gyulama itself, Uttaratantra, is really discussing this on the sutra level, but in many of the Tibetan traditions they take this text as a basis pointing to the tantra level of practice.
Buddha-Figures in Tantra
What we use to purify the everlasting continuity of our mind-streams is working with various Buddha-figures. Buddha-figures (sometimes translated as deities) is the Tibetan word yidam. Deities – lots of people use that word, but often it leads to a little bit of confusion, because we’re certainly not speaking here about a creator god, we’re not speaking about something like the Hindu deities or the ancient Greek deities, we’re talking about different aspects of Buddha. So I prefer the word Buddha-figure. The Tibetan word yidam is made up of two words, yi and dam. Yi is the word for mind and dam is short for damtsig (dam-tshig), which means a close bond, a close connection. So these are figures or aspects of a Buddha – which means Buddha-nature, our own Buddha-nature – that we make a close bond with, a close connection with, in order to help us purify our mental continuums to achieve enlightenment. And of course, within the Mahayana context, we want to achieve that enlightenment in order to be able to best benefit others.
What we’re doing, then, is practicing now as if we had achieved the result. So now, on the basis of what we ordinarily have, our unrefined state, we use a partially refined state – in other words, we work with these Buddha-figures – and imagine that we’re already at the resultant state, the purified state of being a Buddha. That it acts as a cause for us to be able to achieve that result more quickly. It’s like a rehearsal for a play. We pretend that we are already like a Buddha, having various Buddha-qualities, without being under the influence of these disturbing emotions and this confusion, and so on, but with the perfect realization that we’re not there yet. That’s very important, otherwise there’s no difference between imagining ourselves being a Buddha-figure, like Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), or a crazy person thinking that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra. It’s different from a crazy person’s delusions of fantasy. We know what we’re doing, and we know that we’re not there yet. But we know also that it is possible for us to achieve that state, because we have Buddha-nature, and we’re perfectly aware of all the hard work that we have to do in order to actually achieve that resultant state. So we practice tantra with full understanding, not as some sort of escape into a fantasy world.
Also, all these various figures, these Buddha-figures, have lots of faces, many arms, many legs, and here we need to realize that the important point is not that we want to become some strange monstrous figure with all these arms and legs, but that the arms and legs and faces all represent different aspects of the sutra path and we are weaving them all together. And so if we have six arms, then, we use this to represent the six perfections or far-reaching attitudes, this type of thing. And it’s a very helpful method for creating a tantra – in other words, weaving all these things together – so we can have them all conscious at the same time. They’re very important.
If we want to become a Buddha then we need to be able to have all these various good qualities, all these various aspects simultaneously. Well, how do you train to do that? It’s not so easy. If we try just abstractly to keep twenty-four things, or thirty-seven things, or any of these huge number of different practices and qualities – if we try just abstractly to keep them in mind all at the same time, that’s very difficult to do. But if we represent each of them in a graphic way – an eye, a different arm, a different face, a different leg, this type of thing – then it’s easier to keep that whole image in our mind simultaneously, and that acts as a framework on which to hang our understanding and development of all these qualities. So it’s a very useful method, but not an easy one, by any means. But it’s important to understand the purpose behind it; it’s not some sort of very weird, exotic practice that has absolutely nothing to do with reality.
The Meaning of a Mandala
Also, we imagine that our environment is a mandala. A mandala is a representation of a building, actually. Some people use it as sacred symbols and things like that. They think it’s like that, but actually that’s not what a mandala is. A mandala is a building, a building in which we live as one of these Buddha-figures, and there are many other figures in it, in many of them, not just the central figure. And the mandala is not just a building, but it’s the outside as well that’s around it. And each of the architectural features of the building, again, represent a different insight, a different realization, and so on.
When we do the practice, we imagine that we are all the various figures and the building as well, that all of that is a manifestation of our mental continuums with Buddha-nature. That’s also not so easy. But, if you think about it, we are, as human beings, a tremendously sophisticated, complex… When we do the visualizations we imagine that we are the entire group of figures inside the building and the building as well, and this is not so strange, because, when we think of ourselves as human beings, we, as I was saying, are a very sophisticated complex of many, many different systems. We have a circulation system, and a digestive system, and we have many parts of our body, and we have the mind, and we have skin, and we have all these various things, and so we are a complex of all of them. And it’s not that we just think in terms of “I am my head” or “I am my hand” or something like that; we’re the whole thing. And so, similarly, here in tantra when we do these very complex visualizations, we are the whole thing. Likewise, we imagine that our speech is in the form of mantra, not just our ordinary type of speech, but it’s able to communicate perfectly to everybody, not in our incomplete way in which we communicate now. We imagine that our activity is tireless – we never get tired – and we’re always able to be able to do the right thing (and we know what the right thing is) that will help others. And we’re able to enjoy things not mixed with any type of confusion.
Voidness of These Buddha-Figures
So we imagine all these various things, similar to what we would achieve and attain as a Buddha. And what’s particularly important is that we imagine here that all these pure forms are pure not just in the sense that they’re not our ordinary appearances, but that they are pure in the sense that they don’t appear in some sort of impossible way. When we speak about voidness, which is very important in all of Buddhism and particularly in tantra, then we need to understand that voidness means an absence – something is absent, it never was there – and this is impossible ways of existing.
Ordinarily, our minds make things appear in an impossible way. An impossible way would be as if things are just self-contained, just sitting there independently, establishing themselves independently of causes and conditions and projections and all these sort of things. As if things were coated in plastic or having a big solid line around them, just there, dissociated from everything else, especially from their causes, and especially from the way that each mind perceives what we see. That’s impossible, because in fact everything is interrelated, and everything arises dependently on causes and conditions, and mental labeling, how we conceive of things, and so on. So it’s very important when we imagine ourselves in these ways, in these various forms and figures, that we imagine this pure, in the sense of without an appearance of solid existence and what’s called true existence in Buddhist jargon (which is actually false existence because it doesn’t exist at all). So we understand the reality of what we are imagining.
The Inseparability of Samsara and Nirvana
In the Sakya tradition when they speak about what’s known as inseparable samsara and nirvana, this is another level of understanding here in tantra, which is that our energy vibrates on various levels, a little bit like quantum levels of particles in physics, quantum mechanics. With one way, our energy can vibrate in the way that gives our ordinary appearance. But, likewise, there’s another quantum level, in which our energy could vibrate with this appearance of these various Buddha-figures, in these pure forms, by which we can vibrate with what we might perceive as being truly existent, but it can also vibrate in a way in which it doesn’t have that appearance, that false appearance.
So there are many different quantum levels, and these are: The one that is our ordinary form, an appearing as if it were truly existent would be the samsara level. The other level, which is pure appearance of a Buddha-figure without this appearance of true existence, that would be the nirvana level. And these are inseparable. So it’s not a total fantasy or imagination that we are appearing in this pure form, but this is just another quantum level which is possible and which is actually there (in the same sense, if we think like quantum mechanics). So that actually is a very sophisticated view that we find in Sakya, and one that I think is quite helpful for not thinking that “This is just totally crazy!” when we are doing these visualizations.
The Source of the Tantras
Now, when we practice tantra, we need to be very much convinced of the authenticity of what we are doing. Is this just something crazy that somebody just thought up, and it’s just really weird and strange? Or is this an authentic teaching of the Buddha? As I said, tantra is a subdivision of Mahayana. At the time of the Buddha, of course, nothing was written down, and it was only many centuries later, about four centuries after the Buddha, that anything was actually written. Before that, things were just recited orally. People seemed to have tremendously good and accurate memories. They memorized everything, and would get together in groups and recite the teachings. In fact, nowadays the monks and nuns still recite the teachings of the Buddha in these assemblies.
According to tradition, then, Buddha taught all the various aspects of the Dharma, the teachings – the Hinayana texts, the Mahayana texts (within Mahayana, both the sutras and the tantras). It was first the Hinayana sutras that appeared in written form; Theravada particularly came first, the Pali tradition. Pali is the language in which they were written when it was written down first. Then, after that, some of the other Hinayana traditions, and then the Mahayana scriptures started to appear, and then finally the tantra scriptures started to appear. And so a lot of people say “Well, come on! These were not written by the Buddha. These were written by people at that time.” (The earliest tantras appeared probably around the second century of the Common Era.) But the great Indian master Shantideva gave a very good argument concerning that point. He said that any argument that you use for trying to prove that the Mahayana scriptures are not valid, we could use to prove that your Hinayana scriptures are not valid as well. So, if you are going to accept the Hinayana scriptures as valid, that they were transmitted orally and written down later, then you need to also accept that the Mahayana teachings are similarly valid, even though they weren’t recited publicly, the way that the Hinayana teachings were. And the tantra teachings were recited even less publicly than the general Mahayana sutra ones.
But also I think that, aside from this point being explained in the traditional Buddhist way, that we can look at it from another point of view, which we don’t find explained so much, so explicitly, but actually also derives from the standard teachings, which is that there are different descriptions of a Buddha in the Hinayana and Mahayana sutra and in tantra. And so, from a Hinayana point of view, you would say that the teachings were taught by the historical Buddha. Well, that means that only the Hinayana teachings were taught by the historical Buddha; it doesn’t follow that the Mahayana and tantra teachings were taught by the historical Buddha. If we look within Mahayana, that’s the place to see, well, what does Mahayana say a Buddha is? And then that Mahayana type of Buddha (or Buddha described in Mahayana texts) would be the type of Buddha that could teach the Mahayana sutras. That seems to make quite a lot of sense.
So we look in the Mahayana sutras and there Buddhas are teaching to these enormous fields of hundreds of millions of all different types of beings – we get a nice picture of this in the beginning of the Prajnaparamita Sutras – and it’s going to all the different Buddha-realms, and the Buddha is manifesting in a million different forms, and so on. So it’s this type of Buddha that could emanate and appear at any time in history, and so on, that would be teaching the Mahayana sutras. So, if that’s the type of Buddha that we’re talking about, then sure, Mahayana sutras were given by the Buddha appearing at different times. Fine. No problem.
And also, within these Mahayana sutras, we find that Buddha authorized others to teach. Like, for instance, Avalokiteshvara was authorized by the Buddha. Buddha was sitting there and he authorized Avalokiteshvara to declare the Heart Sutra. Or a lay person, Vimalakirti, was authorized and spoke the words of the Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra (that’s the one which talks about the lay bodhisattva). Manjushri taught the Parting from the Four Clingings. Maitreya taught all sorts of texts to Asanga, who went to Maitreya’s heaven or pure realm and came back down with these teachings. Various other teachings – Mahayana teachings – of the Buddha were hidden. Like the Prajnaparamita Sutras; Manjushri hid them with the nagas underneath the ocean, and then Nagarjuna went and recovered them. Well, if you’re going to accept that, then there’s nothing really strange about accepting the tantras either. So it starts to make us really think where do these teachings come from.
Within the tantras as well: There was one great female practitioner, Jnana Dakini, who kept the Vajrabhairava Tantra in the pure land of Oddiyana, and then Lalitavajra journeyed there and brought them back. The Kalachakra teachings were brought to Shambhala – Buddha taught them, and Suchandra, the king of Shambhala, brought them to Shambhala – and then thousands of years later various masters journeyed and they received various visions. Kalachakra-pada the Elder received a vision of the Kalachakra teachings from one of the kings of Shambhala. Other texts were buried – and that didn’t start in Tibet; that started in India. This Uttaratantra, this Everlasting Continuity, that was buried by Asanga himself and later revealed in India by Maitripa (he was one of the teachers of Marpa). And of course in Tibet Guru Rinpoche buried many, many texts and they were found later.
So tantra itself is not so weird if we think of how the texts came about and whether they are authentic or not, because we find that whole array of unconventional origins of the texts going back to the Mahayana sutras as well. And, within tantra, when we talk about “Well, what is a Buddha? And who would be the Buddha that is actually teaching all these tantras?” then we have to think of the clear-light mind itself – the subtlest mental continuum – as the source of the tantra. And that’s the deepest Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is talking about the features of that clear-light mind, the subtlest mind, and that would be the Buddha that reveals the various tantras, rather than the historical Buddha. So everything has to be understood within its own proper context.
Classes of Tantra
Also, when we look at tantra, we have various classes of tantra. I don’t want to go into tremendous detail about the classification systems since there’s a lot of variation on that; that’s rather technical. But, within tantra, they’re all working with these various Buddha-figures. And we have in the New Tradition within Tibet – in India there were other systems of classification – but in the New Tradition of Tibet, which would be the Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelug traditions, we speak of four classes of tantra:
- Kriya tantra is the first class. That is a type of ritual tantra (for want of a better word to translate it). It puts a great deal of emphasis on external purification aspects – diet, these type of things, ritual cleansing, ablution, and many aspects like that.
- Then there’s charya tantra. Charya tantra is sometimes called the behavioral tantra, and that would be – according to the traditional way of explaining – it has an equal emphasis on external and internal practices.
- Yoga tantra is the third class, and that has more emphasis on internal practices.
- And anuttarayoga tantra (or highest yoga tantra) is the fourth class, and that has special internal practices.
That’s the traditional way of explaining them. The two classes that are practiced most frequently are the first class and the fourth class. Kriya tantra is the class that often we have with the practices of Chenrezig (that’s Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), and Tara, and Manjushri, and Vajrapani, and so on; with these types of practices. When we look at the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, that is where we find practices like Kalachakra, Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava, Yamantaka, Vajrayogini, Heruka, Chakrasamvara, Hevajra – there’s a whole long list of them.
What characterizes the highest class of tantra is that that’s the class in which we work with the subtle energy-systems – with the chakras, and winds, and energies, and all of that – in order to get access to the clear-light mind (the subtlest mind). When we speak of the mental continuum, it’s not our gross mind, our sense consciousness, that continues from lifetime to lifetime; it is not our ordinary mental consciousness, our concepts and thoughts and these sort of things; but, rather, it’s the subtlest level of mind, known as clear-light mind, which goes from lifetime to lifetime. It’s only this highest class of tantra that speaks about this level of mind, and it works with the subtle energies and chakras, and so on, in order to be able to access that subtlest level.
That subtlest level of mind is the most conducive for gaining the nonconceptual understanding of voidness. That is the whole point of getting to it. It is automatically nonconceptual, and therefore the correct understanding gained with that level of mind can cut through all the ignorance, all our unawareness, all the confusion the most efficiently, which is what we want to do, because what we are aiming to do is to get rid of true suffering and its causes. So tantra is the most efficient – especially anuttarayoga, the highest class of tantra – for doing that, so that we totally purify our mental continuums. The reason for that is because it works to gain access to this clear-light mind. The other classes of tantra don’t do that.
Within Nyingma (the Old Tantra tradition in Tibet) there is a six-fold classification of tantra. We have the same first three classes, and then the last three classes – mahayoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga (or dzogchen, another name for atiyoga) – is a further subdivision of the same material that’s covered in anuttarayoga tantra, the fourth class in the other classification system. These three classes differ just in terms of what they emphasize within the practice.
Ritual and the Importance of Bodhichitta
All of the classes of tantra, as we were mentioning, use these Buddha-figures – a very central defining characteristic of tantra – and all of them involve the practice of ritual. Ritual is something that is not so easy to understand properly and to relate to properly in a beneficial type of way. During these rituals, of course, we’re imagining our body is a Buddha-figure; we’re making various mudras (various gestures with our hands); with our speech we’re reciting texts, we are reciting mantras; and with our minds we are imagining that our energy is going out and helping all type of beings, so we imagine that we have this type of activity. We imagine that we have the good qualities of the Buddha-figure; and with our minds we imagine that we have a blissful understanding, a correct understanding of voidness. All of this, of course, within the context of very, very strong bodhichitta.
Bodhichitta is absolutely necessary for the practice of tantra. That can’t be emphasized too much. Why? What is bodhichitta? Bodhichitta is a mind that is aimed at our own individual future enlightenment that we have not yet attained, but which we can attain on the basis of our own individual Buddha-natures. We’re aiming at future enlightenment. It can be attained on the basis of the Buddha-nature, our Buddha-nature, and it is motivated to aim toward that, and to realize it, in order to benefit others, because of our love and compassion.
So that’s what we’re doing in tantra, isn’t it? We are aiming at our own future enlightenment that we haven’t attained yet, and we’re imagining that we are there yet. So it is almost the same as bodhichitta. Without bodhichitta, tantra is just a game, and rather than have beneficial results, as many great masters in the past have said: it just will result in rebirth as some sort of ghost in the form of one of these Buddha-figures, with many heads and many arms and many legs. Because it’s not done with bodhichitta (in other words, it’s not seeing this as a representation of our future enlightenment) and it’s not with the understanding of voidness (so it’s grasping onto these features as if they had some sort of true inherent existence all by themselves), so without bodhichitta and the understanding of voidness, and without renunciation (renunciation means are we are willing to give up our ordinary way of conceiving of ourselves in order to achieve enlightenment?) – without these three, tantra practice is very, very dangerous actually.
Again, one has to underline that it’s an advanced practice; it’s not a beginner practice. It’s not to be something that is to be done lightly or just casually. Then of course we could just sing rituals as if we were in a church and singing hymns, but then it’s just choir practice; it’s not actually tantra practice. But if we actually are trying to do the practice with our minds, not just sing along with the group and play, like in Disneyland, with the bells and vajras and drums and things like that, then if we’re doing it seriously then really it has to be done with a proper understanding and proper motivation and proper preparation.
So we do these rituals. And in order to understand rituals and relate to these rituals in a beneficial way, I think it’s important to understand the difference between a Western concept of creativity and an Asian concept of creativity. They’re quite different. In the West, we think of creativity as inventing something new and personal, individual, expressing the real me in a creative way, to create something new. A little bit like God creating the universe, something like that. Whereas in an Asian context, being creative means within a set established structure – adding life to it and making it harmonize with the environment and with the current situation. Like in temple architecture, there’s a set form of temple architecture; you don’t have to invent a new form of a temple, of a Buddhist temple. But, with creativity, is to fit that temple into the scenery in a harmonious type of way, to fit it in and to give it life within that context.
And so the same thing with these rituals. A lot of Western people get bored: “Now we’re just doing the same thing over and over again,” and “Can’t we be creative and create something new with our rituals?” That’s not the point. The point is, within this set structure, to add life to it, and to use it as a vehicle for fitting in all the things that we’re doing in the ritual harmoniously into our own personal lives. There are many benefits for approaching the ritual in that way, of trying to give life to it and use it as a stabilizing structure. And of course the main aspect of it is that it does give us stability, and stability is something that is very important. It also gives us the security of fitting into a tradition, which is helpful. And it also aids us in developing a sense of dependability; I think this is one of the greatest features of these ritual practices: it’s that we do them every single day for the rest of our lives.
Initiation and Taking Vows
Initiation is what, in a sense, activates these Buddha-nature aspects through the inspiration of the lama who’s giving the initiation and what we’re doing during it with our visualizations. It’s not some sort of magical thing, that a lama touches you on the head and then – wham! – something magical happens. But rather it’s an inspiring type of event; when we are participating properly and know what we’re doing, then it can activate these Buddha-nature potentials.
We need to, at an initiation, take vows. It’s very, very important. Sakya Pandita said very clearly: without taking the vows there is no initiation. And so if you’re at an initiation and you don’t know what’s going on, and you don’t know that you’re taking vows, and then later somebody tells you “Oh, at the initiation you vowed blah blah blah…” and then we completely get upset because we didn’t know what we were doing – well, you didn’t receive the initiation. It’s clear you have to be very conscious in what you’re doing, and very consciously accept the vows – in terms of how we’re going to practice, how we’re going to behave, what we’re going to avoid. And also we commit ourselves to a daily practice, and that daily practice is repetitive. Usually it’s doing a ritual, at least repeating a mantra every day with some sort of visualization. And that gives us stability, dependability. No matter how busy our lives are, no matter how many different things we’re doing every day, at least for a part of the day we have this stability and dependability of doing one thing that always remains the same in terms of its structure. And that is very, very helpful. Very, very helpful. Especially when we lead such a stressful, busy type of life. Also, there is no competitive pressure to create something new here. We can just relax into a given structure, which has the security of this structure and, similarly, it gives us a structure for expressing emotions and feelings, which for a lot of people is very helpful. If we don’t have a structure of a prayer, for example, it’s hard to generate some sort of aspiration or some sort of feelings.
So, when we have this structure, it’s very helpful. Of course we could just repeat the structure without understanding what we’re doing, and just get into a very mechanical type of a practice, and that, I think, is not so helpful. Some people might think “Well, it’s helpful anyway, because it does at least give us dependability and stability of doing the same thing every day.” But the main thing is to generate a type of feeling, a type of state of mind, and that is the most important aspect of it, and so this is important to do.
Changing Our Self-Image
Now all of the different practices involve these Buddha-figures, as I’ve been explaining, and when we imagine ourselves in the form of one of these Buddha-figures, what we’re doing is, at one level, we’re changing our self-image. That would be a more Western way of looking at it. From a Buddhist point of view, what we’re doing is trying to create the causes for achieving the body of a Buddha. When we do love and compassion meditations, with concentration on voidness meditations, and bodhichitta meditations, all these things, we’re trying to develop the mind of a Buddha with all the qualities of the mind. And when we visualize ourselves in the form of one of these figures, we are building up causes for a body of a Buddha that is able to multiply into countless forms that can get bigger and smaller, and do anything – appear in any form – to benefit anybody in any way that will help. But, if we think a little bit in a Western way here, then we are changing our self-image; and this is a helpful way, I find, for working with these Buddha-figures.
Although all of them represent the full enlightenment of a Buddha, each of them, in a sense, has a specialty. Each one especially represents one or another quality of an enlightened being. So, for instance, Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara) represents the compassion of the Buddhas, the wish for everybody to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering. Manjushri represents the wisdom, the clarity of mind, the discriminating awareness of the Buddhas. Tara represents the energy, the enlightening energy. And Vajrapani, the powerful abilities. So you have a whole long list; one could go through all the various Buddha-figures.
Ordinarily, most people have quite a negative self-image, that “I’m not good enough,” “I’m stupid. I can’t understand,” or that “I don’t have any feeling for others,” and all these sorts of negative feelings. “I don’t have the power to be able to do anything to change the world,” etc. And, instead of thinking of ourselves with this negative self-image, we transform our self-image into these positive self-images. But it is not equivalent to the Western power of positive thinking that we have in Western thought. It’s not just simply saying “Well, now I imagine that I’m great, that I can do all these things, that I have all these qualities,” but, rather, what we are doing is understanding the transformation on the basis of voidness – that I don’t inherently exist as somebody who can’t understand anything. So we dissolve this. “That’s impossible” – that anybody exists just inherently stupid, or inherently confused, or inherently with no feelings. That has come from different causes and conditions. We dissolve this negative self-image and then, in a sense, we reboot the computer and think in terms of “Well, I can be, on the basis of Buddha-nature, someone with perfect clarity of mind, perfect understanding, with unbiased love and compassion for everyone, if I develop all the causes for that.” It’s not that it’s going to exist all by itself – you just press the button and there, it’s there – but within that understanding of voidness, that everything arises from causes and conditions; nothing exists independently all by itself in a vacuum. And so, on that basis, we imagine ourselves with this more positive self-image, realizing that we’re not there yet, but we could be there with enough energy thrown into the system, enough causes that we build up. And so it’s not just the power of positive thinking.
Buddha-Figures and Jungian Archetypes
Now some people want to confuse these Buddha-figures with archetypes – we talk about archetypes in Jungian psychology – and they’re not the same as archetypes. An archetype is a symbol for a fundamental pattern of thought and behavior that is present in the collective unconscious of everybody, deriving from collective experience. That’s sort of one of the official definitions of it. So we have archetypes like the loving parent, the wise old man and the wise old woman, the brave hero, the wicked witch, these types of archetypes. They are expressed in myths and fantasies and literature in all cultures. And one of the aspects of them is that their meanings are quite obvious to anybody who sees them. Mother with a baby at her breast – everybody can understand what that represents. Or an old man with a white beard and looking very wise, or a warrior, or some sort of strange-looking witch-like figure. People can see what that represents fairly easily. These are archetypes.
Whereas Buddha-figures, these yidams, are quite different. They are features of everybody’s clear-light mind, not of the collective unconscious, and the meanings are not obvious at all for them. You see an image of Avalokiteshvara with four arms and, unless you come from that culture, there’s no association that one would automatically have that this represents compassion, does it? So it’s the same thing with these other Buddha-figures. These are representations of certain aspects of an enlightened mind, and we have to learn what they represent, and we have to work with them. The clear-light mind is a subtlest consciousness that goes from one lifetime to the next in each individual, and not only in human lifetimes but in all lifetimes in all life forms that have a mind; whereas the collective unconscious is not something that’s going, in each individual person, from lifetime to lifetime. It’s from a completely different system of thought. It’s what explains the continuity of mythic patterns over successive generations, not lifetimes, and it’s only in humans that we have this. So that’s quite different.
Also, the yidams, these Buddha-figures, represent only positive qualities, not negative qualities – like the wicked witch, the devil, and this type of thing. And even when we have Buddha-figures that are very strong – we tend to associate, let’s say, anger with them – they’re not representing anger as a negative emotion, but they are representing the energy behind anger, which can be transformed and used in a positive type of way. Also, the archetypes tend to come spontaneously into our consciousness in dreams, fantasy, and literature in all cultures, but the Buddha-figures don’t come to you automatically in dreams etc., unless you are very familiar with them – either in this lifetime or, in very, very rare cases, in previous lifetimes. So they’re quite different; they’re not archetypes.
The Buddha-figures are considered emanations of Buddhas. Well, are they actually individual beings? Is there a Tara? Or are they just manifestations of Buddhas – of the historical Buddha? Or can it be a manifestation of my own mind? And actually it’s all of those. Some of these Buddha-figures – there are accounts of them being historical figures. There is the account of this one bodhisattva who, in a lifetime as a woman, vowed to continue taking rebirth as a woman in order to achieve enlightenment in a female form, in order to encourage women that it is possible. And so this individual became known as Tara. And there are several others that you have some sort of account of them being actual individual beings. But, even if they are an individual being – and not all of them would be – nevertheless, they can also be used to represent various aspects of an enlightened being, and not only Buddha Shakyamuni as an enlightened being, but also our own future enlightened states.
We can manifest as a Tara. We can’t manifest as the individual being Tara, but we can manifest in a form that is like that, which would be a Tara. And if we manifest ourselves in the form of Tara – let me just add one more thing – then we can use that as a container for our practice within that structure; then, as a tantra, we can weave many, many different things together within that framework of imagining ourselves as Tara.
Now there are many people who regard Tara and various other Buddha-figures as objects to direct our prayers to. “O Tara, save me.” “Mother Tara.” In Mongolian, they even refer to Tara as “Mother Tara.” But actually one needs to understand the nature of prayer here in Buddhism. We are not praying to omnipotent beings who can just grant our wishes and just make whatever we wish for happen, by their own power, by themselves. That’s not possible, according to the Buddhist explanations. Rather, what we can gain from figures like Tara is inspiration, inspiration to be able to achieve whatever we wish. And, if we are viewing Tara as an individual being who has made an infinite number of prayers to be able to benefit everybody, then our wish to be able to achieve something plus the power of the previous prayers of Tara can interact with each other and give us the inspiration and courage to be able to achieve our goals.
So it works like that, as a dependently arising result, a result that arises dependently on our own state of mind, our own wishes, our own energy and efforts, plus the energy of the previous prayers of Tara – her what’s called enlightening influence that she has, which is just always functioning without any effort on her part. And one aspect of Buddha-nature which is very important is the aspect that our mental continuums can be uplifted. We can be inspired. A rock can’t be inspired, whereas our mental continuums can be inspired to achieve higher levels of attainment. So that’s another aspect of Buddha-nature, and that’s very much in play here when we discuss the whole aspect of prayer, so we need to understand that.
Misunderstandings about Violent and Sexual Tantric Imagery
Now, whenever we enter into the topic of tantra, there is a great deal of misunderstanding that needs to be clarified. There are some people in the past who looked at tantra as a degenerate form of Buddhism. They came across it – this is particularly the missionaries and the people from the Victorian age that went to India and saw the various paintings with couples in union, and they became very upset and self-righteous about this – and they responded to the sexual imagery, and the flames around various figures, as being a degenerate form of Buddhism into sexual orgies and devil worship. That obviously was a misunderstanding of what actually was there. There are others who came upon tantra and projected onto it all sorts of Western ideas, that these couples in union were representing the integration of the masculine and feminine sides of the mind, and we get all sorts of psychological analyses of what’s going on in tantra, which is also quite irrelevant to the Buddhist teachings of tantra. They may be helpful in psychology, but they’re certainly not what tantra is talking about.
Others may have come across these various aspects within tantra and then become very excited that we can now learn all sorts of exotic sexual practices, with new positions and so on, and make our sex lives more interesting. Others can be attracted to it by the power. For instance, the Mongols at the time of Kublai Khan turned to tantra, the Tibetan form of tantra primarily. Although this is controversial, but my interpretation of it is that it was primarily because of the power of tantric protectors that obviously were behind the fact that Chinggis Khan got killed in battle with the Tangut people, who had Mahakala the great protector behind them. So, obviously, we, the Mongols, need this strong force of protectors which comes from the practice of tantra.
We need, therefore, to try to approach tantra not because of a fascination with sex and violence, not because of thinking of it in terms of some union of masculine and feminine principles within us, and also not with the aversion of thinking that this is some degenerate form of Buddhism (but, nevertheless, we are fascinated by degenerate things and so we want to do that), but, rather, look within the context of tantra itself, what its own explanations are for these aspects that are so difficult for Western people to understand. And these aspects of the sexual imagery and the imagery of various violent aspects (flames, and weapons, and so on)… Mind you, Westerners aren’t the only ones that have had difficulty with these images; the Tibetans have difficulty with them as well.
When tantric Buddhism first came to Tibet, then, after some time, there was also a great deal of confusion about it. The Emperor, Ralpachen, who in the beginning of the ninth century commissioned a dictionary, a great dictionary project to standardize the translation terms from Sanskrit to Tibetan – he did not allow any tantric terms to be translated, to be included in the dictionary, because he said there was too much misunderstanding about it. And also after the persecution of the Buddhist monasteries, which happened around the middle of that ninth century, then, for a while, there was a lot of misunderstanding in Tibet, particularly concerning tantra, particularly concerning the sexual aspects and the more violent imagery, and people seemed to take it quite literally. It was to clear up this misunderstanding that – once things became a little bit more stable in Tibet, at the beginning of the eleventh century – various kings, and so on, sponsored different Tibetans to go down to India and to learn the Sanskrit language and to bring back a more correct version of Buddhism in order to correct the misunderstandings and abuses that were going on in Tibet. So we as Westerners are not alone in being confused by this imagery.
But if we look within the tradition itself, then: First of all, in terms of the sexual imagery, a couple in union. Well, what are the words for the couple in union? What are they called? They’re called in Tibetan yab-yum. Yab-yum does not mean, like the Western psychologists think, masculine and feminine, not at all. Yab-yum are the regular words for father and mother. Nothing terribly sexy about father and mother. The image is that, in order to produce a child, you need a father and mother in union; and so, similarly, in order to produce an enlightened state of a Buddha, you need what the father and mother represent, which is, on the most simple level, wisdom and compassion. And then there are many deeper levels of what the father and mother represent – practices for achieving the body of a Buddha, practices for achieving the mind of a Buddha, etc. There are many levels in which a father and mother image goes as a symbol.
Also, in terms of this sexual imagery, there is a great deal of talk about bliss and generating bliss, and using that blissful state of mind in tantra. But, again, we need to understand very clearly that the purpose of it is to use that blissful state of mind as a mind that focuses on voidness, and the benefit of it is that it helps to get to a more subtle clear-light state of mind. So, when we’re talking about a blissful awareness, we’re certainly not talking about the bliss of orgasm – that is explicitly stated in all the texts – it’s certainly not talking about ordinary sex, but rather it’s talking about an incredibly difficult, sophisticated level of yoga practice which you have to work up to to be able to do, in which you are able to control the energy-winds, the subtle energies within the body, so that there’s no way you could possibly have an orgasm (either male or female). And, through various positions – if we want to use that word – yogic positions, one can generate a blissful state of mind with the energies within the central energy-channel, which can then be used for moving certain energies within the central channel with the blissful awareness that can help to dissolve the grosser energies, so we get to this subtlest clear-light state of mind. So we’re talking about some very, very sophisticated, difficult yogic practice that requires a sexual position in order to actually generate it. And it doesn’t even require a sexual position all the time, just the first time; after that, one can use the memory of that to generate it. And the aim is to be able to get the most subtle level of mind, which is blissful, as the mind that understands voidness. That’s the whole point of this sexual imagery when it is discussed in terms of bliss. So it’s important to be very clear about that.
If we are approaching tantra because of the hope of a promise of some exotic form of sex, so that we can call sexual practice spiritual practice, this is very, very mistaken, and it is one of the most fundamental ways of breaking the tantric vows. Tantric vows are very explicit about that, about being clear that one is not doing sexual practice as some sort of spiritual practice. If you’re going to have sex, then have sex, ordinary sex, but don’t think of it as a spiritual path, as a way to enlightenment. And, because of all the vows, that gives us a very clear guideline of how we practice, and it certainly doesn’t give us a license for sexual practice as a spiritual path.
Also, we have these various peaceful and forceful figures in tantra. They are sometimes translated as wrathful, angry figures. I don’t like that translation; it brings up the whole image of a god that is jealous and doesn’t like what you’re doing, and wrathful, and angry, and is going to smite the unbelievers and the sinners. That’s certainly not what we’re talking about here. That is the Victorian missionary view of when they saw these things; they obviously understood it in the context of their own beliefs. But, rather, the images are speaking about using forceful energies. Our energy can work on many levels, at a peaceful level and then a forceful level, and sometimes it’s necessary to use forceful energy in order to cut through our disturbing emotions. If we’re acting very lazy and very selfish and very greedy and so on, we need forceful energy to just say “Cut it out! Stop it!” Just – wham! smack! – cut out that type of behavior, that state of mind. So you need forceful energy. So, many of these Buddha-figures represent this forceful energy – which, if gentle energy doesn’t work, we need forceful ones – and they’re represented with all sorts of weapons that smash through laziness and stupidity, and with flames (flames represent the different types of deep awareness), and so on. Weapons can represent love and compassion and all the various aspects of the path.
So when we practice tantra, then, it’s important to understand the theory of it – this is what I’ll speak about on the weekend – of how it actually works. And to have confidence in it, otherwise we’re just doing something that we don’t really understand or think that’s going to work or be of any benefit. And we need to practice it with preparation, not with no preparation. Not just as “Let’s go to a community course, practice and sing along in a foreign language with our friends.” That’s not what tantra is about. It’s a very, very profound path of practice and one that can be very beneficial if done properly and with proper guidance.
The Relation with the Spiritual Teacher
And particularly what is emphasized over and over and over again is the importance of having a qualified spiritual teacher to guide us. That doesn’t mean an unqualified spiritual teacher; it means a qualified one. Because there are many people who are unqualified who claim to be teachers, so you have to really check up on the teacher. But when we are working with the various energies of the body, and when we’re working with imagination, if we don’t have the guidance of somebody to check what we’re doing and so on, it’s quite easy to go off in a very crazy direction that could be potentially quite harmful to us and quite dangerous. And so the guidance of a correctly qualified teacher is very important. And not only in terms of correcting us and leading us in our practice, but also in terms of giving us inspiration by their examples and to hear somebody who practices all these various things, let’s say someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and it doesn’t make them into a crazy, weird person, does it? It makes them into an incredibly practical, loving, down-to-earth person who is able to deal with the most unbelievably complex world issues of himself and his people and the world at large. And so here’s a good example of somebody who intensely practices tantra, and look what the results are. This helps us to keep our feet on the ground when we practice tantra and to see it as not an escape into a Disneyland world of fantasy, but rather it is a very practical method – although perhaps a little bit strange-looking to our own mentalities coming from the West – but a very practical method for reaching enlightenment in a very efficient way, to be able to benefit everyone.
A Practical Approach to Tantra
And also, one last point – before I open this up to questions – is that His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says that there are some people who represent tantra in almost a – the phrase he uses is “Chinese propaganda type of way.” That here is the quick, easy path, and all you have to do is relax into it and be natural, and work with these various figures, and then you will be enlightened, and it’s really quick and easy. He says this is propaganda. This is not at all the case. There may be one in a hundred billion who has built up so much positive force in past lifetimes that everything automatically happens in this lifetime with very little effort. But if Milarepa had to work so hard, what do we think that we’re going to need to do? It’s a bit presumptuous to think we are better than Milarepa.
Tantra is something that has the potential to give quicker results, much more efficiently than other methods, but don’t expect grand results instantly from it, not at all. One has to persevere with practice, and work very, very hard. And don’t expect anything. Every meditation text says: when you meditate, don’t have any hopes or expectations and don’t have any disappointment. Just do it. Just do the practice. Be consistent. Because, remember, one of the natures of samsara is that it goes up and down, and it’s going to continue to go up and down until you achieve liberation. And so sometimes practice goes well, sometimes it doesn’t go well. That’s just the nature of samsara. No big deal. No reason to get upset or excited about anything. It’s natural that it goes up and down. So, with that type of more practical approach, then, slowly over time we find that the tantra practice does have a certain beneficial effect, but only if we approach it in a practical way.
Question on Treasure Texts (Terma)
The question is about the treasure texts, the revealed treasure texts, that sometimes it sounds like myths – in terms of Guru Rinpoche, or texts coming from visions , like the Kalachakra text and Shambhala. What is your personal view on that? Or is it to you a question which is not so relevant?
First of all, there are many classifications of terma (gter-ma), of these treasure texts. There are some texts that are buried actually physically; these are earth termas, they’re called. And then there are mental termas, mental treasure texts, which are buried in the mental continuums of special disciples so that later on, with some sort of experience, some sort of circumstance or condition comes about in some future lifetime, all of a sudden somebody feels very inspired and writes a text. This is why I said that one needs to look at the tantra (particularly anuttarayoga tantra) description of what a Buddha is. If we think in terms of the fully realized clear-light mind – and each of us have our own individual clear-light minds – then that treasure text was buried in the consciousness and is being revealed, in a sense, by a Buddha. So that type of treasure text, I think, is understandable.
What is a little bit odd to me is… I don’t know. I mean, you’re a composer and I write books, and so both of us know what it’s like to have inspiration and to write something. And, in the end – you know, you write something and you write it very quickly, and there it all is – and, in the end, you didn’t really have a clear idea in the beginning, and you didn’t really follow an outline or anything like that, but, in the end, it worked out perfectly organized, and perfectly synthesized together, and you are pretty surprised at the end and you say “Wow. How did that come out like that? I didn’t really struggle and plan it out. It just sort of came like that.” Well, I would feel unbelievably uncomfortable saying that that was a treasure text that was buried in my mind by Guru Rinpoche. I can’t imagine the audacity of somebody to actually claim that. So I really wonder did the people themselves who wrote these texts, and had these visions, say that this was buried in my mind by Guru Rinpoche. Or was it their later disciples who, out of devotion and respect, said that? I don’t really know.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama said there’s no reason why these pure visions should not continue into the present and that there won’t be more termas in the future. He says there’s no reason for that not to happen. But you have to look within the texts themselves in terms of the traditional forms of validating the texts. Does it produce its stated results consistent with all other Buddhist practices when it is put into practice by a sincere, highly qualified yogi? If it produces the results, and that can be confirmed by other people as well – so, scientific method – then it’s a valid text. So whether we say it was planted there by Guru – I mean, who was Guru Rinpoche? Actually, when you think about it, the historical figure, the one that we find in the biographies, does he represent something else? He’s certainly used as a Buddha-figure as well. So one has to look a little bit more deeply. I don’t tend to take things too literally.
Now, as for as the buried texts that are found in the ground or in walls and so on, I tend to think that that could be possible, mainly because… I remember once I was traveling in Tuva and people there told me that during the Stalin period they actually did bury texts in order to preserve them (and in later times people remembered where they were and dug them up again), in order to save them from being destroyed. So it’s believable that in difficult times people would bury texts.
Now what is more difficult to imagine is that some of these texts are written in dakini language, with just little squiggles and stuff like that – they’re not actually written or printed in normal language – and somebody seeing these little ciphers would be able to, all of a sudden, translate them and come out with a text. Again, I think that probably that’s inspiration. That’s being inspired by some external object that, all of a sudden – “Aha!” – it triggers something in your mind and then you write something. Something like that. I mean, that’s my own interpretation of it.
But then I think it always has to be validated, because there are plenty of crazy people who claim that they got all sorts of messages from aliens in flying saucers and who knows what. So what is the difference? I think this is a serious question. What is the difference between accepting as valid these tantra texts and somebody claiming as valid things that come from all these various mystical oracles, and people going into a seance and aliens speaking through them, and so on? That’s a serious question if one is to take tantra seriously. But I think the main point, as His Holiness emphasizes, is: Do they work consistently with the other Buddhist teachings? That’s the most important aspect for me.