Tantra: The Four Noble Truths as the Context


We started our discussion of tantra in general with an introduction to what tantra actually is. And one of the main points that I try to emphasize is that tantra is an advanced practice. It’s a practice that is not intended for beginners. Even if we have started with tantra practice as a beginner, we need to get the background and get the training, in order to be able to make that tantra practice meaningful. If we start, in the beginning of our Buddhist practice, just doing some tantra ritual and singing along in Tibetan of some ritual text, then, without any background, it’s quite unlikely that we will get terribly far in terms of this type of practice. But, with a sufficient background and understanding, this type of practice obviously is extremely beneficial and can be effective. And so, if we’re doing this type of ritual practice and we find that it’s not really making much of a difference in our lives, then that’s a clear sign that we don’t really have the background behind the practice.

And, as I mentioned, even if we have the background, the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down, and this is going to continue all the way to liberation, and therefore it’s not surprising that sometimes our practice goes better, sometimes it goes worse. Progress is never ever linear; it’s always up and down. So, when we look at ourselves and try to evaluate “have we made any progress with this path?” then, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, we need to look not at a short period of time of practice, but look over a period of five years, for example. And, in that five-year period, am I able to deal with problems and difficulties in life in a better way now, without being so upset, without being so nervous and stressed, without getting so angry, or being so greedy and so attached, these types of things? How does that compare with five years ago? Am I better able to get along with others? This type of thing. That’s how one evaluates whether or not there’s any progress.

Obviously, the whole purpose of Dharma practice, regardless of what type of Dharma practice we’re doing, is to work on our personalities, work on ourselves. The purpose of it is not some sort of ritual to worship some type of deity, but to actually work on ourselves and transform ourselves in a way that’s going to be not only producing less suffering for ourselves, but in a way that helps us to not only produce less problems for others but to actually help them – and to help them not just in trivial ways, but to help them in much deeper ways.

So, with that introduction, then, what I would propose to do – because we only have a short time – is to speak a little bit about the context of tantra practice. As I say, maybe you’ve had teachings on this before, but I think that this is really very, very essential. Hopefully we can cover that in the morning, and then in the afternoon to speak more about the actual theory of how tantra works.

Any type of Buddhist practice needs to be done within the context of the four noble truths. That’s the basic teaching that Buddha gave. And the four noble truths are something which are extremely deep. It is a topic that one focuses on all the way to liberation and enlightenment, trying to understand it and work with it on a deeper and deeper level.

First Noble Truth: True Suffering

The first noble truth is the truth of suffering. When we speak about suffering, we are not just speaking about the ordinary suffering of pain and unhappiness and these types of things. We’re not just speaking about the suffering of change, which is our ordinary type of happiness that never lasts and is never satisfying, we never have enough, and you never know what is going to come next, so there’s no security with it. But we’re talking about what’s known as the all-pervasive suffering. All-pervasive suffering is the fact that we continue to take rebirth uncontrollably – that’s called samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth – with a body, and mind, and emotions, and feelings, and all these things, which are the basis for the first two types of suffering. They’re the basis for having unhappiness and our worldly unsatisfying happiness. So that’s the real problem, that we continue to perpetuate the basis for the up and down experiences which are unpleasant or, even if they’re pleasant, they don’t last. That’s really the problem. That’s really what we want to get rid of. Just to work to get rid of our ordinary unhappiness, you take drugs. You can follow any type of worldly method. Even animals strive to overcome the suffering of pain or things like that. And to overcome just our worldly happiness – well, there are a lot of religions that talk about going to some paradise and leaving this worldly happiness, these so-called worldly pleasures. That’s not Buddhism. What Buddhism is talking about is this uncontrollably recurring rebirth and the fact that we just perpetuate the basis for more and more of this suffering of up and down.

Second Noble Truth: True Causes of Suffering

Now the true origin of that – which is the second noble truth – the true cause or true origin of that is basically the mechanism that drives samsara. So, when we’re practicing tantra, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to break this whole cycle of samsaric rebirth. Now obviously if you don’t believe in rebirth, the whole process of Dharma in general, let alone tantra, becomes what I call Dharma-Lite; it’s not The Real Thing. It’s like Coca-Cola Lite; it’s not The Real Thing. So, in order to really practice tantra in any sort of an effective way as a method to break this pattern of samsaric rebirth – which we have to do in order to help others to break their samsaric pattern of rebirth, as a Buddha – we need to start to really think quite seriously about rebirth and what that actually means. And rebirth of course is not a very simple topic at all. Because in tantra what we do is we follow practices (particularly in the highest class of tantra) in which we imitate, in our meditation, the process of death, bardo, and rebirth. And we want to change that whole experience by meditating and building up habits so that, instead of having this ordinary death, bardo, and rebirth, we can use that type of structure to achieve enlightenment. So the practice of tantra especially is very, very much oriented toward overcoming this all-pervasive suffering, the fact that we are perpetuating what’s called the aggregates – the body, mind, and so on – of samsara, over and over again, every time that we die. I think what can be helpful is to reflect for half a minute or a minute or something on each of these points, otherwise maybe there’s too much information all at once. So let’s think about that a moment.

Rebirth of course is a very difficult topic in Buddhism, not at all simple. It requires, in order to understand it on a deeper level, a very good understanding of the Buddhist idea of the self, the type of self that doesn’t exist – the impossible “self” – and the type of self that actually does exist, and what actually is going on in terms of who is reborn, how is karma carried from one lifetime to another. These are not simple topics. Without the understanding of the Buddhist explanation of what is mind and what is the self and so on, it’s very difficult to really get an accurate idea of rebirth. Often our ideas of rebirth are ideas that Buddhism itself would reject, so in the beginning we need to be humble and recognize that maybe I don’t understand the Buddhist idea of rebirth, but it’s something that I will assume is correct. In other words, I will – we say in English – give it the benefit of the doubt, which means to provisionally accept it and then work further and further along with my Dharma activity, my Dharma practice, to try to understand it better, so that my practice becomes really quite sincere. That I’m not just doing this – tantra practice, especially – just for this lifetime, and just as a – I don’t know what, but not really going deeply enough with the practice.

Then, as for the actual second noble truth – the true origins of this uncontrollably recurring samsara and perpetuating it – is the whole mechanism that causes us to build up karma and to activate the aftermath of karma (the tendencies and habits that are left by our karmic actions). We tend to act in all sorts of ways that are very impulsive, without really any control, because it’s under the influence of our disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes.

Disturbing emotions would include – the most fundamental one is known as naivety or ignorance. Naivety means to be unaware; we just don’t know or we know incorrectly. What is it that we don’t know? We don’t know – what we know incorrectly – cause and effect, to start with. Because we don’t really understand what would be the effect of acting destructively, we act destructively. We don’t understand – we don’t know – that it’s going to bring not only suffering to others, but particularly suffering to ourselves – unhappiness, things going poorly. So that’s one aspect. And then, just in general, we are unaware of how we exist, and how everybody else exists, and how the world exists. Because we are naive about that – we’re unaware, we either don’t know or we know incorrectly – then we act on the basis of some false conception, the conception that I exist as some independent entity, independent of body and mind and everybody else, and so on, independent of all sorts of causes, and therefore I am the most important one in the universe, I’m the center of my universe, the center of the whole universe, and therefore I should get my way. We act like that, don’t we? That “I am the most important one. Things should go well for me.” Therefore, on that basis, we have greed (we want more and more, to try to make that so-called solid “me” secure). We have attachment (we want to hold on to things, to try to make what we think is an independent “me” secure). We have anger (we want to get rid of things that we think threaten us, threaten this so-called solid “me”). We’re jealous. We get arrogant. All these sorts of things.

And so that misconception, that naivety, that unawareness, and all these disturbing emotions that we have on the basis of it, this is what causes us to just compulsively act in ways of, you know: Yelling at somebody if we don’t like what they said. Or stealing, taking things that don’t belong to us, because “I have to have it.” Hitting others. Doing all sorts of negative type of things. Speaking in a harsh way. Thinking in very destructive ways. And, even if we act in a constructive way, often we’re doing it – most of the time we’re doing it – because “I’m going to be nice to you because I want to be loved by you. I want to feel important. I want to feel that I am making me” – the big “me” – “that I’m needed, I’m necessary.” Underlying it is an ego trip.

These disturbing emotions and attitudes are causing us to act in these karmic type of ways, and it brings about certain tendencies – karmic tendencies, karmic habits – that continue with the mental continuum, and these get activated, particularly at the time of death, by more disturbing emotions and attitudes. That’s what’s going to perpetuate samsara. And so we have what’s called craving. We crave to not be parted from happiness, and to be parted from unhappiness, and to continue to exist – the solid “me.” All of that’s based on this misconception that there’s a solid “me” and a solid happiness that I don’t want to be parted from. There’s a solid “me” and solid suffering – pain, let’s say, when you’re dying from cancer – that I want to be parted from. And a solid “me” – that I am really craving that it will continue to exist, even if it can’t exist in this lifetime, that it will exist in the next lifetime, that I will go on. Me, me, me.

This is what is perpetuating our samsaric rebirth. And it perpetuates it in a very nasty way, because then in the next rebirth we’re going to continue to have these disturbing emotions and attitudes. And so it’s a self-perpetuating cycle – it goes on and on and on – unless we do something to stop it. This is what we really want to get rid of. And particularly in tantra we are focused very much on getting rid of this. I don’t want to continue to take rebirth in this samsaric type of way. Of course I want to continue to appear, to be able to benefit others, but not with this type of body and mind that has all the drawbacks of samsara: that this body is going to get sick, and grow old, and have pains, and be under the influence of all sorts of sexual hormones, adrenaline, and getting angry and aggressive, and all that sort of stuff. That’s terrible. I mean, this is really very strange from a Western point of view, we want to overcome biology, basically. And we want to overcome all the mental states – the type of mind that is filled with confusion; the type of mind that is dull, which gets sleepy because of the body; these sorts of things. We don’t want to continue to manifest like that. What we want, instead, is to continue manifesting like a Buddha, with a body which is, in a sense, like a light body, and with a mind that is completely free from all of these different stains, these temporary stains. That’s why we imagine ourselves in the form of one of these Buddha-figures. So, rather than clinging and craving to continue to have a beautiful sexy body in our next lifetime, we think in terms of having a body of a Buddha. We imagine ourselves having that body of a Buddha. And of course it needs to be with the understanding of voidness.

Voidness, as I mentioned briefly yesterday, is speaking about how things do not exist in an impossible way. Voidness is an absence – or emptiness, a lot of people translate it – it’s an absence of something. There’s no such thing. There’s no such thing as this weird way of existing that I imagine that I and everything else exists in, as if everything was encapsulated in a big solid line or a big plastic ball, separate, by itself – there it is – unrelated to anything else.

We view people like that, don’t we? You go and you see an old person. He’s very sick, and maybe he doesn’t remember things, and is just sitting in a wheelchair and looking quite horrible. And you think – it just appears to you as if that person was always like that, doesn’t it? It’s not so obvious that this person was a baby, and a young person, and very healthy, and had a family, and an occupation, and all these things. We just immediately see them the way that they look. At that moment, our mind is limited, so that’s all that we see. And we react. Many of us feel uncomfortable with somebody like that. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to relate to them. We can’t really even talk to them. There’s a little bit of fear that many people have. Or you think “Oh, you poor thing,” like that. So we want to get rid of a mind that’s limited like that, a samsaric mind. Even the mind of a liberated being can’t really see all the interconnectedness of everything; it’s only a Buddha’s mind that can do that.

We want to get rid of all of that true cause of suffering. So, very much what we’re aiming for is, when we die, not to activate karma, this karmic aftermath. That’s a very important aspect of tantra practice. If we can get rid of all of this karmic aftermath while we’re alive, in meditation, great. But really what we want to do is to die properly so that we don’t actually perpetuate more or we perpetuate a little bit less than we might have in the past.

Third Noble Truth: True Stoppings

The third noble truth is a true stopping of the samsaric cycle and its causes. A true stopping is possible of course on the basis of Buddha-nature. The nature of the mind is pure of all of these things; and all of this temporary confusion, these stains and so on, they are like clouds in the sky – they’re temporary, they’re fleeting, they can pass. They’re not the nature of the mind; the mind is devoid of these things. And so we want to achieve a true stopping of karma, a true stopping of these disturbing emotions and attitudes, a true stopping of our naivety. And we want to achieve a stopping of it, not just that it’s temporary, but a stopping that is going to be forever, so that they never come back again.

That’s very important, to not only understand what we’re aiming for – a true stopping of the true suffering and its causes – but also to become convinced that not only is it possible but it’s possible for me to achieve that. If we’re not convinced that it’s possible, and that it’s possible for me to achieve it, what are we doing with our Dharma practice? What are we aiming for? Just for some fun, some recreation? Just to please the lama, because we’re sitting and doing the ritual that he told us to do, so that he will like us and pat us on the head like a dog and we wag our tail? Or what? So it’s important to understand what is the problem (what are we trying to get rid of), what are the causes of the problem (so the whole mechanism that perpetuates samsara), and what are we trying to achieve (a true stopping of that so that it never occurs again). Let’s think about that for a moment.

Therefore, when we practice these various tantra practices, these rituals, then, it’s important to understand what is it aimed for, what are we trying to achieve, what is it we’re trying to overcome by means of it. And to realize that just reciting these verses and doing these visualizations is not going to bring about a miracle cure. There is no miracle cure. One has to know what one is doing and apply it, not on a superficial level, but go to the deepest level of what is the source of our problem, and use the tantra method for that deepest purpose, that deepest aim. Don’t just leave it on a superficial level. Now of course, if we don’t know the deeper level, to start with just the superficial level may help us to build up a certain habit of discipline, but don’t just leave it at that. “I feel nice. And I’m with other people, and we’re chanting. And it’s a nice atmosphere. And the lama said that it was beneficial,” and so on, so we do it. Well, okay, that has a little bit of benefit, but that’s a very superficial benefit, and only a benefit in this lifetime. It’s almost like a social benefit. Tantra is far more profound than that.

If we’re starting on that level, fine. But don’t be satisfied with that level. Try to go deeper and deeper and deeper. Otherwise the big danger is that we do a ritual on a superficial level for a certain period time, either a short period of time or a long period of time, and eventually we ask ourselves “What am I doing? This is crazy. This is getting me nowhere,” and we stop. And not only do we stop, but then we have a very negative attitude toward tantra. We think this is just some crazy trip. That’s very unfortunate, because then our mind becomes very closed to tantra and the very profound method that is there. So try to go deeper, deeper. Get more teaching, more understanding.

Fourth Noble Truth: True Paths

The fourth noble truth is the true path. Path here is not talking about a road that you walk on. What it’s talking about is a type of mind that will act like a path or a pathway to bring us to the goal. What type of mind, what type of understanding are we trying to achieve that will bring about this true stopping of samsara and the mechanism that perpetuates it, that makes it go on and on and on? That true path or pathway mind is a deep understanding of voidness, that things do not exist in this ordinary way in which my mind makes things appear, as if everything existed independently, isolated from everything else. Mind you, I’m simplifying that; that gets much more sophisticated than that. But, just to make it simple: things don’t exist isolated with big lines around them, just there, by themselves, the way that they appear to my limited mind. Everything is interconnected and arises because of so many causes and conditions, and appears to me in this way or that way because of so many projections of my mind. And things have so many different effects and results, and interacting with each other. Then it’s not just isolated – this person, that person, “You just said that to me. Why did you say that?” and then we get angry – there are so many causes and conditions that have caused different things to arise. Not just “You’re a bad person. You don’t love me” – the big “me” – this type of thing. So we need that type of mind, that understanding of “There’s no such thing. This is ridiculous. Things don’t exist that way,” and then completely stop, cut off that misconception, cut off that projection, not have that at all.

We need that type of mind, plus we need the force of bodhichitta behind it, which is that I am aiming to achieve this in order to reach my future enlightenment. That future enlightenment, my own individual future enlightenment, is possible; that’s a purified state of Buddha-nature. Okay, that is possible; it’s further ahead on my mental continuum, when I’ll actually be able to achieve that, but that’s what I’m aiming for in order to benefit everybody. And that gives the force behind the understanding to actually break through all the garbage. That is the true pathway mind that will bring about that true stopping.

With the pathway mind, that also manifests in the form of a pure appearance of a Buddha, one of these Buddha-figures – whether it’s Tara or Chenrezig it doesn’t matter – rather than in every lifetime just appearing in a body of a human being or a cockroach or a ghost or whatever. That is very important when we do our tantra practice, because many people get distracted from what is the real thing that we’re trying to generate in our minds with the tantra practice, and they get caught up in trivial details, like: What does the jewelry that Tara is wearing look like? And does it have this many little gems on it or that many little gems? And what color eyes does Tara have? And these types of things. How long is her hair? These are trivial. We’re not practicing to become a fashion expert of what these various deities wear and what their jewelry looks like. But people get very, very stuck in their practice, especially when, all of a sudden, to start with, someone says “Visualize the tree of gurus” – which has probably about fifty or more figures on it – and then you’re overwhelmed with all the details, and you feel completely discouraged, so you can’t possibly do this, and then you put all your effort into learning all the tiny little details. That’s missing the point. That’s missing the point completely.

With these visualizations, one great master (Tsongkhapa, actually) said that what you do in the beginning, through these visualizations, is just to have a general feeling of something being there. Just a general feeling, a vague image. Then, as your concentration gets better, the details will come into focus. Don’t worry about the details in the beginning. Just have a general feeling of something’s there and what it represents. It’s the same thing when visualizing ourselves as one of these Buddha-figures, or a Buddha-figure in front of us, Tara or Chenrezig, Avalokiteshvara – just a feeling of it being there, and some vague color or something like that, a vague outline. That’s enough.

Don’t get distracted by less important points, details, and miss the important point. The important point is to understand the voidness of oneself and that bodhichitta, that I’m aiming here as a Buddha-figure, which represents what I’m aiming to achieve – not that it is some saint or something like that in front of me, and “Oh, help me! Protect me!” – this is representing what I want to achieve. And with the understanding of voidness, that I don’t exist with a big solid line around me as this miserable creature of samsara, and that this figure doesn’t exist with a big solid line around it as “Oh, this holy being” that is so distant, up in the heaven, from me that I can’t possibly relate to. But that we understand, with the understanding of voidness and dependent arising, that given the causes and conditions and the hard work, that I can achieve this. And, with bodhichitta, I’m aiming to achieve this in order to help others. That is the main point, not what jewelry the figure is wearing. Who cares? Now the jewelry has various symbolism and what it stands for, and stuff like that, but that comes later.

So, true pathway mind (the fourth noble truth) is important to understand. What actually is it that will bring us enlightenment, bring us liberation and enlightenment? It’s not being an expert on jewelry of a figure. Okay? Iconography is not the path to enlightenment. Let’s think about that for a moment.

So we understand our samsaric condition that’s just going to go on and on, perpetuate itself, because of its true cause – all these disturbing emotions and attitudes, and unawareness and naivety and confusion, and all the karma that is caused by that and that’s activated by that. And we sincerely want to get rid of that, not only for ourselves – we want to help everybody else get rid of that and achieve a true stopping of all of that. And that’s possible on the basis of our Buddha-natures, but with an understanding of voidness, with bodhichitta behind it, because otherwise there’s no way to purify the fleeting stains that are obscuring Buddha-nature.

So, when we are doing tantra practice and we’re focusing on a Buddha-figure in front of us, let’s say Chenrezig, Chenrezig is representing the fully realized potentials of our own mind, our fully realized, fully purified Buddha-nature, that this is what I want to achieve – I don’t want to achieve just more and more samsaric problems, lifetime after lifetime – and we’re convinced that it is possible to achieve that. And, when we imagine ourselves in this form, now we imagine that we’re already there, but on the basis of this understanding – the true pathway mind – that this is possible because I don’t exist in these ridiculous ways, nor do I exist in an impossible way as this Buddha-figure, with a big solid line around me – “Holy me” – just like that, independent of any causes or conditions.

So this tantra practice has to be done (in order for it to be effective) within that general context of understanding the four noble truths. Otherwise it’s not really a Buddhist practice. It’s important to differentiate doing the Buddhist practice, imagining that I am Chenrezig or Tara, from a crazy person thinking that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra. It’s not the same. If we’re practicing it like a crazy person, then we’re not going to get very far in our practice. In fact, it could be quite psychologically damaging. So, again, let’s think about it.

Also don’t go to the other extreme, which people in many cultures with devotional religious backgrounds do, which is to just regard these Buddha-figures as some sort of saint that you pray to and, all of a sudden, we’re going to be saved and enlightened. That’s certainly not Buddhism either. These Buddha-figures are representing fully realized Buddha-natures everybody has – not just myself, but everybody. Otherwise how can I help everybody achieve enlightenment if everybody else doesn’t have this as well? So, again, let’s think about this.


Question about “Miracle Powers” of Buddha-Figures

We’ve been talking about these Buddha-figures. How do we relate to the fact that sometimes we hear about so-called miracle powers of healing of various statues or various figures themselves?

Well, first of all, I don’t think miracle powers is a great translation for the term, because then it brings in the concept of miracles, which comes from another religious background from Buddhism. But, when we think in terms of Medicine Buddha, or Amitabha, or whoever – Tara – then, as I said, some Buddha-figures might have actually been individual beings who made a lot of prayers to be able to benefit others, and others may just be manifestations of an enlightened mind or Buddha-nature, or some may be a combination of both.

I’m reminded of an answer that His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave in Prague a few weeks ago. His Holiness had been speaking about developing a kind heart, compassion, and so on, understanding, mutual harmony. Someone in the audience asked “Could your Holiness please give your blessings for all of us to be able to develop this kind heart, this sense of universal responsibility?” His Holiness said that if you believe in all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and that they have made so many, so many, almost infinite prayers to be able to benefit and help others, yet people are still cruel and hurt each other, and if you think of an almighty God who is compassionate and would like everybody to be happy and so on – still, no matter how much you ask for the blessings of Buddha or bodhisattvas and the blessings of God, people are still cruel to each other. And so asking for blessings is not the point. And he wouldn’t give them, and he just stopped right there. But the point is that, if one wants to develop a kind heart, one has to work with oneself. You can get inspiration from Buddha-figures – Tara, Medicine Buddha, and so on – but the main work has to come from oneself. It’s sort of a combination of the two – inspiration from the Buddha-figure and then what we do ourselves.

When we think in terms of healing, then, we have certain karmic potentials that are ripening in terms of a sickness. Now, if you do a certain puja, a certain ritual practice, make certain prayers, and so on, then on the basis of prayers that were done, not by the statues (a statue is just a representation; we’re not idol-worshipers in Buddhism), but prayers made by Medicine Buddha, Tara, the Buddhas, etc., then what can happen is that this can act as a circumstance for other positive potentials that we have, karmic potentials on our own mental continuums, to ripen so that we get better. So it’s not the healing power of Medicine Buddha or Tara that heals us, not by any means. What it does is those prayers of Tara and the prayers that we make act together as conditions or circumstances for other karmic potentials on our own mental continuum to ripen so that we get better. If those karmic potentials are not there, it doesn’t matter how many prayers and pujas and ceremonies we do – and how many prayers the Buddhas have done – nothing’s going to happen. As His Holiness said, people are still cruel to each other, no matter how much they pray. So, if we understand this… Miracles don’t really happen. A miracle implies that it will just happen, just like that, without any clear explanation of cause and effect.