Tantra: Powa and Nondual Mind

Powa (Transference of Consciousness)

We were speaking a little bit about some of the features of mother and father tantra, as one of the questions. Another feature that I should mention that we have in mother tantra, because I know that many of you are practicing this, is powa (’pho-ba), the transference of consciousness.

We need to remember or keep in mind that the whole purpose of powa is for our mental continuum at the time of death, which is a very special time, to be able to go to a situation that is going to be most conducive for intensive practice to reach enlightenment, and not at all going to a paradise where you just relax and sit by the swimming pool, play cards, in a pure land. A pure land is a place where you don’t have an ordinary samsaric body and you’re able to practice intensively, receive teachings and practice intensively, 24 hours a day. You don’t have to sleep, you don’t have to eat, you don’t have to do anything like that. So it is not a vacation. It is a situation of unbelievably hard work, but everything is conducive for that hard work. I think a lot of people sometimes get a misconception that powa into a pure land is going to some sort of paradise, and they think of it as just blissfully wonderful and that’s it. That’s not the point.

There are three levels of powa – Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya powas. The supreme form of powa is the Dharmakaya, in which the mind… Remember, what is the whole point of the highest class of tantra? It’s to get to this clear-light state of mind, because with that clear-light state of mind, generated as a blissful awareness and generated as a blissful awareness of voidness, it’s the most efficient for cutting through all the obscurations and reaching enlightenment. So Dharmakaya powa is directly into that clear-light state, staying within that clear-light state. So you have to be very, very advanced. But that’s really the powa that one should be aiming for, the type of powa that just through the force of the practice one is able to instantly transfer to that state.

Then the Sambhogakaya level would be if we are already an arya bodhisattva – in other words, we have non-conceptual cognition of voidness as a bodhisattva – and then we’re able to go to a pure land and receive teachings from a Sambhogakaya, a subtle form of a Buddha that teaches this very high level of practitioner. If we’re not at that level, then there’s Nirmanakaya powa to a pure land in which a lesser type of manifestation of a Buddha teaches.

This is a feature that we have in mother tantra. But it’s important to not say “Well, I don’t have to do anything in this lifetime because when I die I can go to a pure land, or some lama is going to transfer my consciousness to a pure land.” That can often be an excuse for laziness – not really trying very hard in this lifetime. It’s far better to put a great deal of effort in this lifetime, in trying to achieve these various attainments and levels of accomplishment on the path. And powa is just a last resort at the time of death if we’re not able to do what is known as the death-juncture meditation – which is, as the winds naturally dissolve during the death/dying process, that we focus on voidness during that process so we die very, very consciously – so that automatically, when we get to the clear light of death, we’re able to use that in our practice – focus on voidness during that time.

Anyway, that’s a little bit about powa, since I know that some of you practice that. It’s important to put it within the general context of tantra and tantra practice, because it is a tantra practice. It’s part of the six yogas of Naropa; that’s where we find it.

Then of course there’s so many different types of pure lands. And I must say that I don’t think it makes any difference whatsoever, whether it’s the pure land of Amitabha, or Vajrayogini, or whoever – there are many, many different pure lands – it depends on what Buddha-figure we have been practicing and feel a close bond with. They’re all equivalent. You can’t say that one is better than another.

Think about that for a moment and then perhaps you have a question about powa.

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If we work with chakras, channels, winds and so on, should we always keep in the background the knowledge of voidness – that all this is only mental labeling – or should we really try to imagine these things truly exist if we do this practice?

Nothing truly exists isolated, by itself, independent of labeling and causes and conditions, and so on. That's the case no matter what we are doing.

Please keep in mind that working with chakras and channels is not an exclusively Buddhist practice; it’s something that we find in Hindu tantra as well. And so it is very important that our practice – if we are practicing a Buddhist path, to make it a Buddhist practice, don’t make it a Hindu practice. That means that our working with the chakras and channels needs to be within the context of practicing causes to reach enlightenment. That means with bodhichitta, and understanding of voidness, and visualization of ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure. You don’t have any of those in Hindu tantra. So just to work with the channels and the chakras is no special Buddhist practice. So yes, you need some understanding of the voidness of what you’re doing, and bodhichitta – the aim, why I’m doing it – and within the container of the body in the form of a Buddha-figure.

You’re asking if we do the practice with the chakras and the channels without the Buddhist container – well, it just acts as a cause for furthering samsara. Now it depends what our motivation is. If the motivation is to gain power and so on, in order to do destructive things, then obviously that has one type of result. Within samsara, if we want to gain power – a big ego trip to be able to save the world – then you could be reborn as some god or something like that, but it’s still samsaric. Or if one is just doing it for no particular reason at all, just because the teacher said to do it, then, likewise, it might – depending on how successful we are – mess up the energies (so that would have not a very nice effect) or harmonize the energies, but still within samsaric rebirth.

It’s like if you do the practices of visualizing yourself as a Buddha-figure without bodhichitta and voidness. The texts say very clearly that’s a perfect cause for being reborn as a ghost in the shape of the Buddha-figure. You find that phenomenon very prominently in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, where you did have Mahayana and tantra Buddhism, and undoubtedly people did visualize themselves as these Buddha-figures, and undoubtedly without the proper context of bodhichitta and voidness. You have this remarkable phenomenon there of everybody – not everybody, but a lot of people – big groups coming together and all the people channeling a spirit, like Laughing Buddha (which is a form of Maitreya Buddha actually) and other various Buddha-figures that come through them and then help people. These are the local psychologists and psychiatrists actually, these people who go into this trance and channel these various spirits. I think the only explanation for that is that these figures that they channel are previous practitioners who then were reborn as a ghost, as some type of spirit, but with a strong wish to help others. And so there they are as samsaric spirits or ghosts being channeled and trying to help others, but it’s still samsaric.

Question about Dual and Nondual Mind

We’ve touched on questions about conceptual mind and non-conceptual mind and the unity of emptiness and the appearance of holograms. People speculate about nondual mind and dual mind. How are all those things related to each other?

Okay. Very good, very good. Dual mind: we’re talking about dual appearance-making. So it is the mind making an appearance of duality. How do we understand duality? There are many, many different ways of understanding duality here, depending on the author, depending on the school of Buddhism. We can say, from a Madhyamaka point of view, that the mind makes an appearance and dual appearance is that it’s making an appearance of true existence – which is false, so an impossible appearance – and that does not accord with how things actually exist. And so the duality it’s referring to is that here’s an appearance that is different from the actual pure appearance of things. So there’s that aspect of duality. A nondual mind would make an appearance of things the way they actually do exist, dependently arising, and so on, or beyond words, beyond concepts – however we want to describe it, depending on the author and the school. So that would be nondual. There’s nothing dual about the appearance, in the sense that it’s not something different from the way that things actually do exist. That’s one explanation.

Another explanation derives from the Chittamatra school, the mind-only school (but it can also be understood in a Madhyamaka sense), which is the dual appearance would be the appearance that the hologram (the appearance) of an object of cognition and the mind that makes that appearance, or that perceives that appearance, exist differently from each other. Now we can say… I mean, I don’t want to go into deep philosophical discussion of Chittamatra and the Madhyamaka modification of it. But if we speak in terms of the clear-light mind – not the Chittamatra, because Chittamatra has things being truly existent – but if we speak in terms of the clear-light mind, a mental hologram (the appearance) and the mind that perceives the appearance are both coming from the clear-light mind. So the clear-light level of the mind makes an appearance, and that appearance will be with a – could be a pure appearance, but an impure appearance as well. What it will give rise to is like a grosser level of consciousness which is making an appearance.

When we talk about mind, mental activity – it’s a very complex topic – but the definition of mental activity is with three words: clarity, awareness, and merely (only that). And it’s all referring to one activity, described from different points of view. Clarity – what’s translated as clarity – is referring to: What does it mean? What is the mental activity? That clarity is referring to making a mental hologram, making an appearance. And the awareness is knowing the object. Then the point is that making an appearance (making a hologram) and knowing an object in terms of a hologram, that’s the same thing. It’s not that, for instance, first the mind creates a thought and then you think it. To create a thought, to have a thought – the arising of a thought and thinking of a thought is the same thing, just described from two different points of view. So that’s the same thing, in terms of the mind making, let’s say, a visual hologram from all these pixels of light and firing of neurons and stuff in the brain. That making of a hologram is what seeing is; it’s not that first the hologram arises and then you see it. And the word merely means that this is happening without a separate, solid “me,” separate from the whole process, watching it or making it happen; it just happens, void of any solid “me” or void of any solid existence itself.

And so the dual appearance would be that the hologram and the mind that perceives the hologram – that they’re different, and they’re coming from different things, and they’re different entities, solid lines around them. Nondual is to see that it’s all one process; it’s all talking about the same thing. Even though it’s talking about the same thing, that doesn’t mean that physical objects and awareness or mind are the same thing. They’re not identical. Nondual doesn’t mean identical. A form of physical phenomenon and a way of knowing something (which is mind), they’re different. But nondual is referring to the whole process of mental activity itself.

Is that at all clear? That’s not easy. Not easy. But when we say nondual, it doesn’t mean that everything is one and it’s just a big, undifferentiated soup. That’s more the Hindu way of thinking – that we’re all one in Brahma and it’s all this undifferentiated oneness. That’s not Buddhism. That’s not Buddhism. When we perceive things, the appearance (the hologram) and the knowing (the perception itself) are not two totally unrelated things; they’re talking about the same activity from two sides. But that doesn’t mean that the appearance is the mind, totally identical – they’re not totally identical – but it’s referring to the same thing from two different points of view.

Question about Starting Tantra Practice

At what point is it actually possible to practice tantra?

As I said, if we’re given these initiations prematurely, in the sense that we’re not really ready, and we’re asked to do the ritual, then fine, you can do the ritual. But actual engagement in the practice – which means to fill in what the ritual is just giving a structure for – for that, we need to certainly have very strong refuge, and at least some basic understanding and feeling for renunciation, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness. Bodhichitta, of course, implies love and compassion as well.

So some level of renunciation, that I want to give up samsara, I want to give up my ordinary way of viewing things, my self-image – and all these sort of things – my image of the universe around me. Willingness to give that up. Some focus on “I want to achieve enlightenment because I’m really concerned about others” – and helping them to overcome their suffering and bringing them happiness, and I take some responsibility for being able to help them to achieve this. And I understand that things don’t exist in the impossible way in which my mind makes things appear, which is as if everything is solid and encapsulated in plastic, or with a big line around it, existing all by itself.

So with that, and an empowerment, and seriously keeping the vows – of how to practice, what to avoid, these type of things – and some relation with the spiritual teacher, so that we feel some inspiration for the practice, then we can actually engage in the practice in a meaningful way. And of course the better our concentration, the more meaningful it will be: Even if we have all of these, if we sit there and our mind wanders all over the place, it’s not so effective.

So these are the points. And also I would suggest that, at that point where we really have the background to be able to practice in a serious way, that it’s very good, if possible, to take the initiations again, so that we really make a very conscious decision – that now I’m not just going to recite rituals, but I’m going to actually do the practice that is described in the rituals.

So there are levels, but there’s no way to go beyond the generation stage unless you have absolutely perfect concentration. The sign that we have finished that first stage is that we are able to… There’s two steps of it. The first one is that you’re able to maintain the visualization of the whole mandala with all the figures, all the details, perfectly for four hours. Then there’s what is called the subtle generation stage, which is that you’re able to maintain that perfect visualization of the whole mandala and everything not only on the external level, but also inside a tiny little drop that you visualize, depending on the tantra, at the tip of your nose, or by the third eye, or various other places.

It’s only when you have that level of concentration and visualization that you’re ready to go on to the complete stage. Why? Because when you are going to be working with the subtle energies and channels and so on, not only do you have to be able to visualize them perfectly with perfect concentration – if your concentration wanders then, if you’ve been moving around the energies, energy is going to go wild and you’re going to get into trouble. So you have to be able to really hold your concentration firmly, and the concentration has to be microscopic, like a laser beam, so that you can actually focus on these tiny little channels and the tiny little things that are there.

So all of this, these stages of practice, it sounds like “Oh my goodness! How could I ever achieve that?” Tantra is an efficient and speedy path but nobody ever said that it was an easy path. It’s a very difficult path. But slowly, slowly we aim in that direction, with some confidence that this is really a fantastic path and can really work, and we understand a bit how it works. And then you just slowly go in that direction. And don’t expect big results. Every meditation text says “Meditate without any hopes or expectations and without any disappointments.” You just do it. Just do the practice. And we’re still in samsara – it’s going to go up and down; no surprise. But put in the energy, put in the effort, with the proper motivation, and try. And it can be very, very effective.

Practical Uses of Tantra in Everyday Life

In our ordinary lives, if we’ve been working with the more helpful images of these Buddha-figures then, if we’re in a situation in which “Uhhh. I have no energy,” or whatever, then you dissolve this. You think “This is ridiculous. It’s bullshit. It’s impossible that I solidly exist like that,” and then generate oneself as Tara – “Yes, I do have energy, energy to be able to help others. Vital energy.” We’re feeling very dull and “Duhhh. I can’t understand anything.” Dissolve that with the understanding of voidness – “I don’t inherently exist like that” – and then generate the feeling of Manjushri, that “I have clarity of mind. I am capable of understanding.” Or when our hearts don’t feel anything and “Uhhh. I can’t be bothered to help anybody.” No. Chenrezig – you have the compassion, you have this strong warmth to be able to help others. So each of these figures helps us in a very conventional way, actually, in our tantra practice and when we try to apply tantra practice in our ordinary lives.

Mantras are very, very helpful, especially when our minds are just so unfocused and wandering all over the place, and particularly when – this is something that is very much the case with me – if I hear a song, or even some stupid advertisement on the television, it continues to go through my head endlessly, and it’s very, very difficult to stop singing it in my head. For that, mantra is perfect, because it’s a type of mental judo. Rather than trying to block that mental verbal energy, you transform it instead into saying a mantra. It’s very, very helpful.

So these sorts of things are a more usual application of these practices.

We have to be able to visualize a mandala perfectly in a tiny little dot at the tip of our nose for four hours. Come on, that’s going to be very difficult. But that doesn’t mean that tantra practice is not practical. It is very practical. But don’t leave it on the level of just chanting a ritual and playing with a drum and a bell; that’s fantasy land, if all it is is playing like that. It’s a structure on which you put various things, you fill in various things. And practice is not just when you’re sitting on a nice meditation seat and doing a ritual – it’s all day long. Okay? And by visualizing or imagining oneself as a Buddha-figure, it’s very helpful for bodhichitta because it maintains the focus of what we’re trying to achieve – I’m trying to achieve enlightenment so I can benefit everybody as fully as is possible – so the more we can keep this Buddha-image in mind, of ourselves, the more it helps us to keep bodhichitta in mind. That’s very important. Plus, as we’ve said, from all the advantages of a Buddha-figure: because at our stage it’s just in our imagination, it’s easier to keep in mind voidness. So there are these many benefits..