Tantra: Pure Vision and Physical Exercises

For the remainder of this seminar, I'd like to not follow a strict structure, but just answer questions you might have about tantra and let a wider p[icture of tantra unfold from that.

Can Visualization Help with Dealing with Disturbing Emotions?

When, on a practical level, we’re trying to go to sleep and there’s a lot of noise outside, and we have disturbing emotions because of that, such as anger, and lack of patience, and so on, how would these visualizations help us? By imagining that the people making noise outside, or playing loud music, are Buddha-figures, and the noise they’re making are mantras, and so on – isn’t this a bit of an escape?

Well I think that we need to remember that Buddhism is very rich in many methods. And the method of trying to see everything in a pure form is something which is quite difficult to apply in very challenging situations where we have strong disturbing emotions, particularly of anger. There are methods to work with that anger that we can apply from tantra, that are suggested by tantra. Like, for instance, redirecting that anger at the self-cherishing attitude which says, “I want to go to sleep. I’m more important than you who want to play music.” Or, as in the case of my apartment, the people sitting outside at tables at the cafe underneath my apartment, talking until three o’clock in the morning. And we can use that angry energy, to direct it against the self-cherishing – as is suggested in the Wheel of Sharp Weapons, this mind-training (lojong) or attitude-training text – to see that I’m just being very selfish, self-centered, and so on. But of course doing that with an understanding of voidness. It’s not as though we are beating ourselves because we think of ourselves as a truly existent solid “me,” therefore our anger is really a disturbing emotion, therefore we’re beating ourselves – “I’m so terrible” – and we feel guilty, and so on. We certainly don’t want to do that. That’s not the application here. But rather we want to use the strong energy, the forceful energy of that anger, remove from it – like with a filter – filter out the confusion and grasping for true existence, but use that elevated energy to smash through the self-cherishing attitude.

Now that might not enable you to go to sleep – it probably won’t – but it will at least eliminate your anger and the self-cherishing. Then you have to find another solution. In my case, I take my mattress off my bed and move it into the kitchen, which is an inner room where I don’t hear the street noise. I don’t hear the noise from my extremely loud neighbor, who never goes to sleep until around four o’clock in the morning, and who I hear through the paper-thin wall. I “give the victory to the other,” as we have in the attitude-training, the mind-training course. I don’t try to fall asleep with the noise, because I know I’m just really frustrated, and even if they’re quiet for a few moments then I’m tense because I am expecting them to start making noise again. Give them the victory. It’s no big deal. I can sleep in the kitchen.

So you find some sort of solution. The main thing is not to get angry. Visualizing them as Buddhas, and mandalas, and mantras, and so on, I find very difficult in that situation. In fact I must admit it never even enters my mind to use that method. That’s why we have many other methods that we can use. There’s of course the mahamudra method, which is also extremely difficult to apply, which is to just see this as the arising of a mental hologram and no big deal. What’s the difference between hearing loud noise and hearing the sound of our loved ones saying nice things to us? It’s just a sound. That also can help us not to get angry, but it’s not going to necessarily enable us to fall asleep.

The point is to not get angry, because that’s the real suffering. And the fact that we lie there and continue to try to fall asleep with the noise, when we’re not quite capable of doing that, is ignorance. That’s stubbornness. “I have to have my way!” And if there is no other place that you can move to in your apartment that is more quiet, you have to think of a better solution – of trying to find a better place to live, if you can. Earplugs aren’t that effective. I’ve tried them. They’re not that effective. It dulls the sound; it doesn’t eliminate the sound.

The Application of Pure Vision

In what situations would visualizations be useful?

Well I think it is when we are complaining, in our minds, about: “This is no good; this isn’t good enough. This is a terrible view from my hotel room.” “This person is really funny looking,” and so on – when we have all sorts of conceptual thoughts going through our head, complaining. At that point you can see, well, these are concepts; it’s conceptual thinking. I could also think of them in terms of a mandala of various figures. And as one of my friends, Western friends, pointed out, a mandala has many different kinds of figures in it: some forceful figures, some figures as couples, some figures single, and so on. So there’s room in the mandala for all these sorts of things, and see that I don’t have to experience this in a negative way.

Now this is the point that’s emphasized in seeing the guru as a Buddha. It’s the same thing, the same point here. Tsongkhapa explains it very nicely in Lam-rim chen-mo. He says when you see the guru as a Buddha… He doesn’t go into what developed later in the Gelug tradition – starting with the Second Panchen Lama’s lam-rim, and then Pabongka really elaborates on that very strongly in his lam-rim – of the guru is a Buddha, and Vajradhara said so, and all of that. There’s really a very big emphasis on “the guru is a Buddha.” Tsongkhapa didn’t do that in Lam-rim chen-mo. He explained it as: With the Buddha, you only see good qualities. That’s because a Buddha only has good qualities. But he says that you see the guru as you would see a Buddha, the same as you see a Buddha. So he’s explaining the same quotations from the tantra and sutra texts. But he says just as you see only good qualities in a Buddha, likewise it is most beneficial to do that with your teacher. Then immediately after that he says that, of course, a teacher has shortcomings and stuff like that – everybody has shortcomings; you don’t deny them.

Then the Fifth Dalai Lama makes a whole practice out of acknowledging the shortcomings of the teacher (on the conventional level). But there is no benefit in complaining about the shortcomings, no benefit whatsoever. All it does is get you depressed, and down, and increase your negative thoughts. And so you don’t deny the negative qualities, but you realize that there’s no benefit in focusing on them. Whereas if I focus on the good qualities, they can inspire me, they can uplift me, uplift my energy. And therefore I’m going to focus only on the good qualities – having of course examined the teacher to see that they actually do have good qualities. And then he says very clearly, it’s hardly ever going to be the case that you find a teacher that has all the qualifications that are listed in the texts, so you find one that has more good qualities than bad qualities, and you focus on them. This is what it means to see the guru in the same way as you see a Buddha, according to Lam-rim chen-mo – which, after all, is the major presentation of the lam-rim material in the Gelug tradition.

So it’s the same thing in terms of our ordinary application of the so-called “pure vision” that we try to apply in tantra practice. That when we deal with others – and ourselves for that matter… Sure, if we’re dealing with ourselves, we have to see our shortcomings so that we know what to work on. However, to complain about it, feel bad about it, and so on, is not productive at all. And likewise to complain about other people’s shortcomings is not productive. So we focus on the good qualities – and the good qualities could be represented by this visualization – and that helps us to get at least some inspiration. These people who are sitting outside drinking alcohol all night until three o’clock in the morning, talking loudly underneath my window, totally inconsiderate of the fact that many, many people live in these buildings above the cafe and can hear them and can’t sleep. Okay, that may be a negative quality of these people, a shortcoming. However, these people could be very appropriate objects of compassion. “How wonderful it would be if they could develop consideration of other people. How wonderful it would be if they didn’t spend all their time staying up all night drinking alcohol, and doing whatever, based on that.” So you develop a more positive attitude toward them without getting angry. And still you may not be able to fall asleep, and you still have to find a practical solution to how to deal with the noise.

How Can a Buddha Perceive Suffering?

How can a Buddha develop compassion toward others if a Buddha just has pure vision, pure perception? Because you said that a Buddha’s mind doesn’t create appearances that are connected to suffering, but is able to perceive suffering.

When a Buddha perceives suffering – true suffering and the true causes of suffering – that are on somebody else’s mental continuum, a Buddha always perceives inseparably the two truths about everything, and so there is the conventional (or relative) truth of that suffering and the cause of suffering, and the voidness of it. So the conventional truth of that suffering is an appearance of – they’re generating what represents an appearance of true existence. This is very important to understand.

How do we cognize something that doesn’t exist? What exists is what can be validly cognized – the Buddhist definition – if it can’t be validly cognized, it doesn’t exist. Well everybody every moment cognizes impossible existence – what’s called true existence (bden-par grub-pa). That doesn’t exist. So how can they cognize it? What appears?

[See: The Appearance and Cognition of Nonexistent Phenomena]

This is a very profound and difficult question, and obviously there are several ways of solving this dilemma. But, certainly, actual true existence can’t possibly appear because there is no such thing; and so their mind gives rise to something which represents true existence, or something which gives an appearance of true existence, but that doesn’t refer to anything real, and that appearance of true existence isn’t truly existent.

Now of course you could ask the question: how could it resemble something that doesn’t exist? Wouldn’t you have to have the model of something that doesn’t exist in order for it to resemble that? That’s not an easy one to answer. But, in any case, there is a confusing appearance (’khrul-snang). That’s why I like the word “confusing.” It’s deceptive appearance, that’s the technical term (or at least the way that I translate the technical term). It’s deceptive because it gives the appearance as if it were truly existent, but it isn’t. So a Buddha perceives this type of appearance that the other person’s mind is generating, because that conventionally exists, even though a Buddha’s mind itself is not generating anything like that. But a Buddha can perceive that. But a Buddha also knows that it’s not referring to anything real, so a Buddha also perceives its voidness at the same time.

So, in short, a Buddha can cognize what others perceive, how they perceive it, based on his mental powers. But at the same time he knows that this isn’t correct, because nothing actually exists truly.

Right. A Buddha is aware that this deceptive appearance generated by somebody else’s mind doesn’t refer to anything real. And so a Buddha perceives its voidness simultaneously – is not fooled by it. The other person believes in it, thinks it’s true, and a Buddha can perceive that the other person believes it’s true. In other words, a Buddha knows all the mental factors that are accompanying the person’s perception. So that’s the solution that I’m familiar with to this difficult question. There’s some masters who give a different explanation, but I’m not that comfortable with that.

The Energy-Winds

Can you explain he relationship between the mind and the energy-winds (rlung). You've said that with a mind we can learn to control the energy-winds, but can’t it also be the other way around? That a disturbance of the energy-winds will make a disturbance of the mind?

Well, yes. The relationship, causal relationship, of working with one or working with the other can work both ways. But we have to understand what that causal relationship is. And the casual relationship is that… Well, let me revise how I say this. We can only understand the causal relationship here, between the mind and the energy-winds, if we understand the relationship between the mind and the energy-winds. And the relation between them is that they share the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig) – is the technical term. And the same essential nature means that basically we’re talking about the same thing, but just from two different aspects of it. And these two different aspects of it are – from one point of view, there is mental activity. When we speak about mind in Buddhism, we’re talking about mental activity; we’re not talking about a thing. Put just very simply, without getting complicated here (it’s complicated enough): there’s mental activity, and that can be described from a subjective point of view of experience (that would be mind), or that same phenomenon could be explained from the energy point of view. And so we’re talking about the same thing here when we talk about mind and we talk about the energy. It’s just they share the same essential nature. It’s the same thing, just looking at from one point of view or another point of view. Subjective or objective, if we want to use our Western categories here.

Therefore if you emphasize or work with the experiential side, it has to affect the energy side, because you’re working on the same thing – it’s just a matter of what you are focusing on. And if you work with the energy side, of course it’s going to affect the mind, because it’s the same thing. So the causal relationship here is not a linear one of: you work on one and then the next moment the other one has changed or been affected. It’s a causal relationship of: if you throw a coin up in the air, you don’t just throw the head side of the coin up in the air, you also throw the tail side of the coin up in the air; you put the two together. So it’s like that. If you have worked with the mind sufficiently, the energies of the mind are automatically affected. So if the mind becomes more calm, the energies become more calm. If you work just with physical exercises and the energy becomes more calm, the mind becomes more calm. It’s the same thing. It’s just: how do we approach the issue?

The Importance of Physical Exercise

If we look at many of the great Tibetan lamas, they don’t do terribly large amounts of physical exercise. Wouldn’t it be best to work on the two sides together, both the mental side and the physical side? What’s going on with these great lamas?

Well I would think, personally, that working on both sides would be necessary. When you practice the complete stage of anuttarayoga tantra (the highest class of tantra), there are physical exercises that one does to open up the channels and so on. Before this, in general tantra, there are the prostrations and this type of physical activity. But in order to get the body more pliable – and this is referring to the subtle energy system – there are certain physical exercises that they do. Do many people do them? Probably not. Are many people doing complete stage practice? Probably not. You need to be incredibly qualified to do that. At minimum, you have to have really, really good concentration, which most people don’t have.

So, do the Tibetans put much emphasis on things like martial arts, and stuff like that, which you would have in some other traditions – let’s say some Chinese traditions or Japanese traditions? No, they don’t. Nevertheless, the system seems to have produced some very highly realized beings, who are quite fat and not physically fit.

Some Kagyu masters and some Nyingma masters as well teach “kumnye,” certain physical exercises. Namkai Norbu Rinpoche teaches what he calls “yantra yoga,” which are some exercises similar to hatha yoga in the Hindu system. There are some. Are these teachers taking these exercises from more advanced stages of practice and teaching them to Westerners because Westerners like that sort of thing? I don;t know.

One would have to do a survey of how many actual Tibetan monks and practitioners in these traditions – and go back to when they were in Tibet – were taught these things and did them before they reached the tantra level. I would be surprised if it were a large number. I’d be very surprised. I would think the main exercise that these monks get would be prostration. And for ordinary monks it would be doing the daily work of the monastery. Walking ten kilometers down the mountain to fetch water and bringing it up in huge buckets to the monastery. That’s a lot of exercise, but somebody had to do that. Most of these monasteries were certainly not right next to sources of water; they didn’t have running water, let alone fuel. So that was a lot of work, and the monks had to do that: the ordinary monks, not the Rinpoches. The ordinary monks did.

Even nowadays at the monastery I’m familiar with – Ganden Jangtse, where Serkong Rinpoche is – the monks are all supposed to do the debate training, even if they’re not so intellectually gifted. But they take turns for – I forget how many months it is – of doing the work in the monastery. You know, of setting up the water bowls and the butter lamps and these sorts of things in the temple, and cleaning the floor, and helping in the kitchen, or whatever. They take turns. Everybody has to do it at some point, which is quite democratic, I must say. The Rinpoches don’t. The Rinpoches do prostration, if they do anything. Some of the more modern ones – like the young Serkong Rinpoche has a modern electric treadmill type of thing in his bedroom, which he has positioned in such a way that he’s walking uphill on the thing. And he is the most disciplined person one could imagine; ever since he was a small child, he uses that a half hour every single day when he’s at home. Of course he recites mantras and does other things at the same time, but he does his physical exercise. Many of them don’t.

So, yes, there are some physical exercises that are there, but I believe that the intention of them, and the place of them, was always as a preliminary for being able to work with the subtle energy system. And in fact if you look at qigong and these type of practices in martial arts, it also was intended to be able to work with the energy system, the way that it’s conceived in the Chinese systems. The application of that to actual fighting I think was very secondary.

Since Buddhism is a developing organic system, is there anything wrong in Tibetan masters teachings these methods to Westerners at earlier stages of the practice?

Absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this seminar, physical exercises are something that are not specifically Buddhist. They are things which are shared in common with many, many different systems. Martial arts, for example, can be done – in the Chinese system – can be done in the context of Buddhism; it can be done in the context of Daoism; it can be done in the context of Confucianism. It’s not at all the domain, the exclusive domain, of Buddhism. Theoretical background is quite different. So similarly one needs to practice any of these physical exercises that were originally aimed at working with the subtle energy system – one has to practice it within the context of the Buddhist framework that we’ve been discussing.

In the highest class of tantra when you do these physical exercises, as a start you’re visualizing yourself as a Buddha-figure. Just as a start. Therefore to take the Buddhist physical exercises and just practice them in a health club as yet another form of physical fitness and yoga would be – not something which is negative, but don’t call it “Buddhism.” Nothing wrong with it, but don’t call it “Buddhism.” “Exercises suggested from Buddhist practices.” But the real thing is with the Buddhist context of motivation, aim, the four noble truths, refuge, etc. – as a method to help us reach liberation and enlightenment to benefit others.

Also, the concept of what is being physically fit can be quite different. In the West when we talk about being physically fit and training our bodies, we’re basically training our muscles and our flexibility, I suppose – the stretching exercises and things like that. Whereas from the tantric Buddhist point of view, being physically fit is training the subtle energy system. And although you can’t say that the subtle body, with its energy systems and so on, is totally independent of the grosser physical body, there doesn’t seem to be the prerequisite that our muscles be strong and fit for the energy system to be properly developed.

If you think of examples like Milarepa, I don’t think Milarepa was particularly muscular or physically fit from our Western point of view. Yet obviously his inner energy systems were extremely well trained. Serkong Rinpoche – the old Serkong Rinpoche, my old teacher – he certainly did practice on this complete stage level, because his attendant reported to me that he was doing all sorts of postures and these type of exercises, and so on, in the middle of the night when everybody was asleep, when once he did actually share a room with him at night. But he was extremely overweight and wouldn’t at all be considered physically fit by any Western point of view. So the emphasis is quite different.