Tantra: Visualization & Transforming Disturbing Emotions

Let’s continue with our format, which is to speak about various topics within tantra based on your questions and interests.

The Meaning of a Deity’s Hand Implements

What about the weapon-like instruments that the various Buddha-figures are holding, is there a practical way that we can use this.

Well the specific implements that the various figures are holding represent different things, and everything in the visualization represents different levels of insight and practice. So they’ll say this type of weapon is for smashing wrong view about the self, this one is to pierce through self-cherishing attitude, and so on. And I must say that it seems a little bit arbitrary, because in different systems different implements will have one or another meaning. That’s why I was saying the exact precise visualization of the implement is merely a method for developing concentration on a lot of detail, but the actual detail itself is not the important factor.

Now how do we use this in a practical way? This is like in the Wheel of Sharp Weapons. I think that this lojong text, this attitude-training text, gives very good guidelines for that. There in that text we invoke Yamantaka. Yamantaka is the forceful form of Manjushri. Manjushri is the representation of the discriminating awareness (shes-rab), clarity of mind, or so-called “wisdom” of all the Buddhas. And Manjushri himself is in a peaceful, calming aspect of this type of discriminating awareness, and Yamantaka is the forceful aspect of that. And in the full visualization of Yamantaka, you always visualize Manjushri in his heart. So there’s the combination of the two levels, here, of energy that are involved. And Yamantaka holds thirty-four of these different types of weapons. There’s a lot of them. There’s thirty-four arms. And the thirty-four arms together with the body, speech, and mind make thirty-seven, and that represents the thirty-seven aspects or factors of practice that lead to a purified state of liberation or enlightenment. They represent different practices that we do at different stages of the path.

[Read the text of Wheel of Sharp Weapons]

Now in that Wheel of Sharp Weapons practice, we are invoking this strong aspect of discriminating awareness to smash through the self-cherishing attitude and the false concept of a true “me,” a solid “me.” And although one could look at Yamantaka as an external figure, as an actual being, I don’t think that that’s the most sophisticated level of looking at this practice, but rather we are invoking the forceful energy that we all have as part of Buddha-nature. Remember we were speaking about an inseparable samsaric and nirvanic aspect of our energies. We can also speak – you have this very much emphasized in Nyingma – about a peaceful and forceful aspect of our energies, so they have peaceful deities and forceful deities (khro-bo). They’re sometimes called wrathful deities, but it’s not that they have anger – in our ordinary sense. So I think that’s a difficult word. Better to use “forceful.”

So, in any case, we are calling upon that strong energy, that we all have as part of Buddha-nature, that we can use with our discriminating awareness to smash through when we are acting selfish, when we are egocentric, when we have this self-cherishing attitude, when we have this false concept of a “me.” But of course that understanding is an understanding of voidness. And because it’s an understanding of voidness, we avoid the danger of imagining that we are just punishing a wicked, naughty, stupid, solidly existent “me,” which then would just feed a Western tendency of low self-esteem, and self-hatred, and so on. We certainly don’t want to use those weapons symbolically in our mind to punish a solid “me.” Or certainly not for being so stupid, and selfish. It’s certainly not the case.

Shantideva says it very nicely, that the real battle is the internal battle. Those who fight external battles are only killing corpses; they’re going to die anyway. But the real enemy are the disturbing emotions (confusion and so on) inside us. And so these various weapons that we hold as these Buddha-figures represent the forces that we use to smash these false concepts and disturbing emotions that we have internally. Whether the weapon is thirty-two centimeters long or thirty-one centimeters long, and does the ornamentation on it have four points or five points, is totally trivial in my opinion – although you could have explanations of what four points on it or five points on it represents. But I can’t emphasize enough: at the beginning stages, don’t get hung up on the details; that will just become a major obstacle in your visualization practice. Because unless we are extraordinarily gifted from previous lives, most of us cannot deal – at a beginning level – with an incredible amount of detail in a visualization. Unless you have a photographic mind that can just automatically produce something perfectly.

Obstacles to Visualization Practice

What are the obstacles?

The obstacles that come up in over-emphasizing the details are that we are unable to do it; therefore we get frustrated; therefore we give up. We feel, “I’m no good; I’m incapable; this practice is stupid.” And we develop negative attitudes towards the practice, which then is very disastrous because we’re no longer receptive to using it. That’s why it’s described in the various texts as – that leads to a hellish rebirth. Now we can take that very literally. Or we could understand that also on the level that if you close yourself off completely to a method for achieving liberation and enlightenment – by considering this stupid, and pointless, and that I’m incapable of that – what’s the karmic consequence of that? You’re born in a situation in which you pretty much are incapable of practicing it. You distance yourself from it. So that’s a hellish rebirth.

What is the meaning of the Sanskrit word for the so-called “hell being” and the Tibetan word for it? Serkong Rinpoche always emphasized to look at the actual words that are used; there’s connotation in these words; they have meaning. And so the Sanskrit word – naraka – it has the meaning of “joyless.” There’s no joy, no happiness in a hellish rebirth. And the Tibetan word nyelwa (dmyal-ba)has the connotation of “difficult to get out of”; that’s why I translate it sometimes as “trapped beings in the joyless realms.” You’re just sort of trapped by your own closed-mindedness into a joyless situation. Whether it is with hellfire and people sticking all sorts of burning things up your lower orifice or not, that’s something else. This we find in almost all religions, some sort of description like that. That’s a completely different issue.

Using Disturbing Emotions on the Path

So we use this forceful energy. This is very important in tantra. How do we use disturbing emotions on the path? How do you transform them? Well, we can do this in a sutra way or we can do this in a tantra way – we can do this in many ways. What’s the sutra method? Again look at Wheel of Sharp Weapons (I’m bringing this up as an example because many of you attend my class on the Wheel of Sharp Weapons). And there the tonglen practice is used for transforming the disturbing emotions. Tonglen is the practice of giving and taking. And so when we have disturbing emotions, we transform it into a constructive pathway of mind by imagining that – not imagining, but focusing on the fact that I’m not the only one that has this disturbing emotion and the suffering that comes from it, but this is a common problem to everybody. Therefore, I am a limited being, a sentient being; this is a problem of all sentient beings; therefore it is my problem as well – everybody’s problem.

So then we take on and imagine that we are dealing with this problem for everybody and giving the solution to it, which could be on many different levels of nonattachment. It can be – if we have attachment – it can be understanding of voidness. It can be whatever. And so in that way we transform the disturbing emotions into something that helps us further on the path. This is one of the main features of the lojong tradition, of the attitude-training: to transform negative circumstances into positive circumstances for making progress on the path.

Okay. Now there are other methods for using these disturbing emotions. In mahamudra, which can be practiced according to the Kagyu and Gelug tradition on both sutra and tantra levels; in the Sakya tradition, only at tantra level… But, in any case, if we want to understand the nature of the mind, of mental activity, then the analogy is: the more fuel you have on the fire, the stronger the fire will be. And so the more intense the state of mind is with these disturbing emotions, the more intense the state of mind is for focusing on the nature of the mind, and as exemplifying what the nature of the mind is. And that obviously is an incredibly difficult practice. The mind is very filled with energy with being very excited. Then you can see that nature of the mind more easily, and the actual nature itself is more obvious. This is the explanation. It’s very difficult to practice, incredibly difficult to practice. When the mind is dull, it’s difficult: the energy is low; it’s difficult to actually see what is the nature of mind.

Mental activity is the arising of a mental hologram and the cognitive involvement with it (which are equivalent to each other). And just that – let’s not get into a big discussion of the nature of the mind. But this arising of a mental hologram, which is the awareness of an object, the stronger the energy of that – in other words, the bigger the flame – the more obvious it is. And the more intense the flame – as an observer, as an understander – the more intense your level of understanding it can be. So that’s another method of transforming and using these disturbing emotions.

In tantra in general, not just the mahamudra level, we can use primarily desire as part of the path, which is that you initiate a happy state of mind with desire, but then you use that to destroy the desire. In other words, you want to induce a blissful state of mind by being – if we use the colloquial – “turned on,” in a sense, by a beautiful person, a beautiful body, or whatever. But with that intensified state of mind, of desire – which is a conventionally happy state of mind, a tainted type of happiness – then you use that to focus on the voidness of the happy state of mind, and the object, and the self that is experiencing it, and so on. So you use desire to destroy desire. So that’s a transformation.

Then when you experience something that is very beautiful, and initially there’s that happiness that might be brought on by it because of desire, then, in that happy state of mind, you understand the voidness of it and you can make an offering of the beauty. Enjoy the beauty in a more pure way. So that way you’re not disturbed by the fact that I’m turned on by certain forms of bodies. For each of us, it will be slightly different – what turns us on – it doesn’t matter; it’s irrelevant. There’s that usage of it.

The usage of anger, as I was describing, that strong force of anger might come up in a certain situation, but then you redirect that energy, with an understanding of voidness, to smashing the self-cherishing. These are more in the direction of tantra usages of the – or transformations of the – disturbing emotions.

Sleep and Dream Yoga

His Holiness was always wondering what would be the way of transforming naivety, the third poisonous attitude. And if I remember correctly, he said, “Probably sleep yoga.” This is when you, as you fall asleep – this is incredibly difficult to practice – as you fall asleep, the mind withdraws from the senses and it withdraws from the elements of the body, so you’re not so aware of physical sensations of the blanket on top of you, or of the heat or cold, whatever it might be. So consciousness withdraws, and it withdraws in stages. And there are definite descriptions of these stages of the withdrawal of the consciousness, as it becomes more and more subtle. And in one system there’s eight stages, and in another system there’s ten stages – it doesn’t matter. If you can recognize that these stages, they occur to a certain extent when we fall asleep, but it doesn’t go all the way down to the subtlest level. It occurs to the fullest extent when we die, and you actually get to the clear light level of mind. And we can do the same thing as what happens in death, in meditation, if you have worked with the subtle energy system. And you don’t die. So there’s an advantage here, of not dying in the practice, obviously.

Sleep yoga would be to fall asleep very consciously of the process of the consciousness withdrawing, so that we’re able to recognize what’s called the “clear light of sleep.” This is incredibly difficult to do. Not only is it so subtle, but if your mind is really alert trying to observe this, you never fall asleep. It’s like trying to recognize dreams, you know; it’s called “dream yoga.” To recognize that you’re dreaming, and then to see the voidness of that – that it’s like an illusion – is the whole point of it, not to be able to fly and have all sorts of naughty adventures while you’re in your dreams. Of course the dream state is very conducive for single-minded concentration, because you don’t have distraction from the senses. So you can use the dream state to do a sadhana – perfect for visualization and clarity, and no mental wandering. So you use that dream state for understanding everything is like an illusion, and for doing a sadhana practice.

However, what’s difficult is to recognize that you’re dreaming and not wake up when you recognize it. That’s the most difficult part of it. And it’s even more difficult in terms of recognizing the clear light of sleep; you don’t fall asleep, you’re too alert, so you never experience the clear light of sleep. It requires being very relaxed, obviously. But I think, if I remember correctly, His Holiness was saying that that’s probably the use of naivety – the mind getting more dull, in a sense, although that’s not exactly what naivety means, but it’s not knowing things; so you don’t know the sensory consciousness, and so on – of transforming that into a path

That brings us to end our seminar. Although the questions you have asked have covered a wide range of topics, I hope that this discussion has helped to fill in the pieces so that you get a fuller picture of tantra. So let’s end, then, with the dedication. We think whatever positive force, or energy, or understanding that has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.