Tantra: What Makes Buddhist Tantra Buddhist

Common Features of Tantra

Tantra is a type of practice which is found not only in Buddhism, but also in Hinduism and, to a small extent, also in Jainism – the three major Indian religions. And so when we want to look at what Buddhist tantra is all about, it’s very necessary, I think, to differentiate between what are the common features of tantra that we find in all these different Indian systems and what would make it specifically Buddhist.

Now I suppose one of the features that is found in common in all these tantra systems is working with these various figures. I tend to call them “Buddha-figures,” but that wouldn’t be appropriate for these other systems. The Tibetan word that many people are familiar with is yidam. The Sanskrit word for that is ishtadevata. “Devata” is a deity, literally, or some sort of divine figure; and ishta” means something that is wished for – in other words, that you’re aiming for. You are aiming to achieve this type of state which is represented by this figure. And nobody in any of the systems that we find tantra present in would think of these deities as being in the ordinary god realms, like Shiva, or Krishna, or anybody like that; but these are very special figures which represent the goal that we are aiming to achieve, whether it is Buddhahood, in the Buddhist system, or whether it is some sort of moksha (liberation) that you find in the other systems. So this is in common.

And in the highest class of tantra within Buddhism, there is work with the subtle energy channels, and winds (energies within the body), and chakras – all of this. And this is something which is likewise found in common in Hindu tantra and perhaps to a lesser extent in Jain tantra. Although there’s not so much material available that I’ve seen about Jain tantra, but I know it exists there to a certain extent. So just working with subtle energies, and chakras, and these sorts of things, that’s not specifically Buddhist; that’s something which is held in common.

Another thing which is held in common is working with some sort of blissful awareness that is going to be used as some sort of factor on the path to reaching the goal. And usually what one would have to say is that this blissful awareness is not just a state of mind in which you’re really, really happy and that’s what we want to work with and achieve, but that blissful state of mind is generated in one way or another with the subtle energy system. It’s not just our ordinary happiness, and it is utilized as a mind that is focused on the view of reality according to whatever system we are working with. And so it is used as some sort of method. Okay.

All of these are common features in all these different tantra systems. So we need to look to see what makes Buddhist tantra specifically Buddhist. And this is a question that we find applies to so many of the sutra practices as well, that so many of these practices are practices that are shared in common with many different religions. For instance, concentration and all the different levels of concentration – the dhyanas, the so-called levels of mental stability – methods for achieving them and descriptions of them are in common in both Buddhism and the various Hindu systems. There’s nothing specifically Buddhist about the methods for developing perfect concentration. Or even for developing vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind; that doesn’t have to be a state of mind that’s focused on voidness, it’s just a mind that is able to comprehend and understand and keep everything in order. That also is not specifically Buddhist.

Similarly there are so many methods and so many religions to develop love, and compassion, and these things. Buddhism doesn’t have the exclusive claim on that. Likewise avoiding destructive behavior, wanting to overcome the suffering of pain and unhappiness – that’s something that is also shared in common. Even overcoming worldly happiness and going to some sort of higher state is something which we find in other religions as well.

Features of Buddhist Tantra

So what makes a practice, whether sutra or tantra, Buddhist is the motivation and the aim. What are you doing the practice for? And what are you aiming for? And what is the understanding of reality that will help you to achieve that aim? All these Indian systems are intended for helping us to gain liberation, liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth under the influence of karma. This is in common in all the Indian systems. So what we are aiming for then is – in Buddhism – is what would be a true stopping of samsara, a true stopping of suffering. And that is based on understanding what the true suffering is, and what the true cause of that suffering is, and what is the true pathway mind that will bring that about. So here is what distinguishes Buddhism.

True suffering is not just – these are the four noble truths – a true suffering is not just the suffering of pain or unhappiness. It’s not just the suffering of ordinary happiness, which is the suffering of change. In other words, the more that we have of what would ordinarily bring us happiness, like food, if it were true happiness then the more you ate at one time, the happier it should make you. But obviously it doesn’t. It quickly changes into “I’ve eaten too much,” and then “ I’m full,” and then “I’ll get sick if I eat more.” So that’s a clear example of the suffering of change. It’s not a true happiness.

So true suffering is not just these two, but true suffering is what is called the “ all-pervasively affecting type of suffering” (khyab-par ’du-byed-kyi sdug-bsngal). In other words, the problem that affects all of us completely, all pervasively, in terms of every moment of our experience is the fact that we have these uncontrollably recurring aggregate factors – body, mind, emotions, and so on – that are brought on by confusion, mixed with confusion, and tend (unless we are an arhat) to perpetuate more confusion. That’s the problem that is the basis for experiencing the first two types of suffering . So what we want to get rid of is that type of uncontrollably recurring basis for the other two types of suffering.

The true cause for that is identified in Buddhism in terms of the misunderstanding of reality: either we are totally unaware or we have a miscomprehension of how we exist, and how others exist, and how everybody exists. And the true pathway mind that will bring about a stopping of all of that, a removal of all of that, from our mental continuums – that confusion and all the disturbing emotions and attitudes that it brings on; and the impulsive behavior, karmic behavior, that it brings on; and the suffering that that brings – what will get rid of that truly, forever, is a correct understanding of voidness, the absence of impossible ways of existing.

So you have to know what the possible ways of existing are, and then you have to see the exact opposite of that, what will get rid of it, which is to realize that this is not referring to anything real – it’s impossible. So that makes something – I mean, this context makes all these other practices Buddhist practice. This is something which is very important to bear in mind, whether we practice sutra or we practice a combination of sutra and tantra.

Now tantra, of course, is a practice within Mahayana. Mahayana’s aimed not just at achieving this liberation from uncontrollably recurring suffering (samsara), but is aimed at getting rid of all the obscurations that are clouding the mind, each of our minds, so that we become a fully enlightened Buddha with the ability to help everybody as much as is possible to also achieve liberation and enlightenment.

Meaning of the Sanskrit Word “Tantra”

Now look at tantra, the word “ tantra,” and what does that actually mean? What the word actually means – well, there’s what the Sanskrit word means and what the Tibetan translation of it means or connotes. The Sanskrit original word comes from the root “ tan,” which is to stretch out. And so it’s something that stretches out. And the emphasis that is given here in the Sanskrit description is that it is like the strings that are stretched out on a loom for weaving cloth.

So what does that imply? That implies that the tantra practices are practices which, like the strings of the weaver’s loom, we can weave onto it, or fit within its context, all the various sutra practices and many, many other practices, so that we can do them all simultaneously. So it’s a way of putting together all the practices that we have trained in first on the sutra path. This is what makes it a very advanced practice, because you cannot really practice tantra properly unless you’ve done, to at least a certain extent, the sutra practices. Otherwise you have nothing to put together, nothing to weave together on this loom. So simply doing visualization of oneself as a Buddha-figure, and working with the energy systems, and so on, that’s not going to get you terribly far. If it is not in that context of the four noble truths that we just explained, making it a Buddhist path (if we want to follow tantra as a Buddhist practice), and without all the sutra aspects and elements that we put together here into tantra, you might as well be envisioning yourself as Mickey Mouse, or an apple, or whatever. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Just to be able to train your imagination – it’s a nice exercise, but not particularly spiritual. And similarly one can work with all sorts of yoga systems to control the energy and manipulate the energies for all sorts of worldly purposes as well – doing magic feats and becoming very powerful – this is not particularly spiritual, in the Buddhist sense.

Sutra Prerequisites of Tantra

So all these sutra methods, which refer to things like ethical discipline, concentration, understanding of voidness, all the various aspects of renunciation, of patience, of generosity, ofperseverance, love, compassion – all these things are things that we need to have some level of familiarity with in order to practice tantra properly. So if we look at any tantra practice, what we find is it’s generally a script, like in a drama, that we go through and we recite – usually out loud, but it could also be in our minds. And at each point it mentions a certain practice like, for instance, refuge (putting a safe direction in life), focusing on voidness, developing the bodhichitta motivation, thinking of immeasurable love, compassion, etc. – all these things are there. Reaffirming the bodhisattva vows and, in the two higher tantric classes, reaffirming the tantric vows. Guru-yoga is there, the relation with the spiritual teacher. Vajrasattva purification of negative force or potentials is there. In many of the practices we mention, like in Kalachakra, there’s mention of patience and generosity, and these sorts of things. So at each point in the sadhana practice – this making of offerings as a practice of generosity – at each point in the practice we use that opportunity, that moment, to actually generate the state of mind that it’s describing.

Now of course if you do it at super speed, without being well trained, it’s difficult to get these different factors conscious, to generate them. However, eventually, with enough familiarity, we want to be able to generate these states of mind instantaneously, because they are so familiar to us that they are naturally there – they automatically arise. And it is only at that point that it becomes feasible to actually put all these to work on putting all these states of mind together simultaneously.

Going through a sadhana practice, then, is a little bit like going through a physical workout with your body. You go through a physical workout, you exercise all the different muscles, and so on, so that in the end you become physically fit. And so similarly when you go through a sadhana, it’s a mental workout as well as an emotional workout (if you want to consider love and compassion and these sort of things as dealing more with the emotions). It’s a very strong training, then. It requires, of course, concentration in order to be able to do it, and discipline – all these sorts of things. And can be a very, very full practice. But it’s not just for beginners.


Another aspect which is there – which is in common with tantra in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and so on – is the recitation of mantras. Recitation of mantras is, basically, working with breath and sound. Again there are things similar to mantra, not only in the Indian religions – Muslims recite the names of Allah, the Catholics recite Hail Mary – there are many types of things that people recite in various religions over and over again, so there’s nothing especially Buddhist about doing that. So again one wants to practice mantra in order to, basically, gain control over the breath, which is corresponding to gaining control over the energy of the body. Because from a general Asian point of view – not just Indian, but you find this in Chinese thought and so on – the breath and the energies are equivalent to each other, they’re very closely connected and equivalent. So that if we can give a “shape” to the breath with a mantra, that allows us to give a shape to our energies, then we can use those energies in some sort of constructive way – obviously you could use it for a destructive way: black magic uses mantras – do it for a constructive purpose to help us to reach liberation or enlightenment, through working with the subtle energy systems to get to more subtle states of mind.

So all of that is put into the tantra practice. This then is the connotation that we can get from the Sanskrit word “tantra,” which is what’s stretched out, the strings of a loom, to weave all these things together.

Meaning of the Tibetan Word “Gyu ”

Now the Tibetans translate the word “ tantra” with the word “ gyu” (rgyud). And “ gyu” means a continuity. So a continuity is also something which is stretched out. The Tibetans then elaborate on this word, of gyu, of continuity; and continuity here is speaking about an everlasting continuity. That everlasting continuity is something which has no beginning and no end. And working with the usage of this word “tantra” to mean a continuity, which you find in Indian texts as well, Tibetans use the sutra context to explain (on a tantra level) what this is referring to.

In Indian sutra texts we find, in the corpus of that, we find a text called the Uttaratantra (rGyud bla-ma). Uttaratantra is a text by Maitreya, it means the “Furthest Everlasting Continuity,” and it is a text basically about Buddha-nature and the Three Jewels of Refuge. There the word “tantra” is used as a “continuity” – with that meaning.

Basis, Pathway, and Resultant Levels

The Tibetans didn’t just make up this translation of “tantra” as “continuity”; it comes from this Indian Sanskrit sutra source. But in that text it speaks about three levels of Buddha-nature: the basis (gzhi), the path (lam), and the result (’bras-bu). The basis level is when the Buddha-nature continuity is tainted over with fleeting stains (glo-bur-gyi dri-ma), it’s called: the various obscurations, disturbing emotions, their habits and so on. And the pathway level is referring to when some of those stains have been removed and some are still there, so referring to the arya state and above – those who have had nonconceptual cognition of voidness or the four noble truths, depending on what system we want to look at. And then the resultant level is when it’s fully purified, all the stains are taken away.

Samsaric and Nirvanic Levels

Now this is then applied in tantra as well – this scheme of the basis, path, and result – and I think that this is something which is very important to understand. If we look at quantum physics, in Western science, we have an explanation that various particles, or phenomena, wave functions – whatever you want to call them – are in several locations, or several places, or several states, simultaneously; and it is only when they are observed (in other words, an interaction with a mind) that one can specify it’s in this state or location or that state and location. Well this is something that Buddhism would agree with, particularly in the system that we find in the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, which speaks about the “inseparability of samsara and nirvana.” So according to this explanation, our energies, and energies in general, are simultaneously in several levels of functioning, or vibrating on several levels, simultaneously. We can speak in general, if we want to divide this just into two categories or two levels, the samsaric level of vibration and a nirvanic level of vibration. So it really depends now on an interaction with our minds as to which level is going to dominate, or predominate, or which level is going to be totally manifest and which one is going to be unmanifest – the different combinations that can be there.

So when the mind is completely tainted with these fleeting stains – the disturbing emotions and attitudes, and all the karmic aftermath that comes from karmic behavior based on the disturbing emotions and attitudes – and when a mind is tainted like that, in other words, the basis level (what we ordinarily have, if we fit this into the scheme of basis, path, and result), then what is going to dominate and be manifest and present all the time is going to be a samsaric level of vibration. A samsaric level of vibration will be with the clear light mind – that’s the subtlest mind, that provides the continuity from lifetime to lifetime and into Buddhahood – from the energy aspect of that mind, the subtlest energy aspect of that mind, it’s going to give rise to all the appearances of samsara, tainted appearances of samsara. So that’s referring to not just visual appearances, that’s referring to everything that arises in the mind, every object that arises to the mind.

So we’re talking here about the five aggregates that make up each moment of our experience. Consciousness, the body, the various objects that we perceive, feelings of happiness, unhappiness, our distinguishing of “this” or “that,” and all the emotions – all of those are going to... Although they are appearing on a samsaric and nirvanic level simultaneously, when the mind is involved with that – if it’s tainted – the samsaric appearance is going to be manifest and dominant. The nirvanic appearance of that, in a pure form – this is represented by these various deity figures, and so on – is not going to be manifest.

Now of course there are many different theories as to: are the two simultaneously appearing, but one covers the other; or it’s just one appearance, and depending on the mind it appears in one way or another way. This is the type of area that the different Tibetan masters and the different traditions will explain differently. I don’t think it makes terribly much difference in terms of our general understanding of the theory of tantra and working with this nirvanic level of appearance. The point is that when our mind is completely covered over with disturbing emotions and attitudes, we just experience the samsaric level of appearances of our emotions, appearances of how we perceive the world around us, appearances of how we deal with happiness or unhappiness, the appearance of how we behave – how that arises.

On a pathway level… And here we can extend the boundaries of the pathway level, not just as in this sutra text, the Uttaratantra (Furthest Everlasting Stream), so not just talking about the arya state, where already some true stoppings have been achieved. But if we look at it on a broader way, when we’re actually following a pathway of tantra practice, then what we are able to do is to be aware of both levels – samsaric level and a nirvanic level – together .

There are many levels of practice of that. If we look at general tantra and we look within the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, we look at the generation stage (bskyed-rim) – the first of the two stages of practice – we perceive the two levels of appearance simultaneously. How do we do that? With our sense consciousness we perceive the ordinary level. So I see you, all these people here in the room. I see what you ordinarily look like with my eye consciousness and I see the room as well with my eye consciousness. I hear the sounds of the birds singing outside with my ordinary ear consciousness. It’s not that I don’t hear these things or don’t see these things. But with my mental consciousness, I am aware of the people here as Buddha-figures. I am aware of the room as a mandala, which would be the environment and building within which these Buddha-figures exist. I hear the sounds as a mantra. Not that I hear it, but my mind conceives of it that way. This is conceptual. And in this way our minds, in a sense, manifest or make manifest a consciousness – both the samsaric and nirvanic levels.

When we get more advanced in the highest class of tantra practice, anuttarayoga, then we will be able to experience things differently. This is because we will have at this stage already worked with the subtle energy system, and been able to control it to the point where we can mold the energies involved in our experience into certain forms. The ability to do that comes from many different yoga practices, of course, with the energy system, but very much so through the visualization processes (working with the imagination) that we do in earlier stages of the practice. Visualization and imagination stages are what are involved when we perceive things with our eyes and our mental consciousness conceives of them or imagines them in these pure forms – as Buddha-figures and so on.

As a result of that, starting on certain stages of the complete stage (rdzogs-rim), the energy-winds (rlung) which are involved with eye consciousness, ear consciousness, and so on – they will take the shape of these Buddha-figures, this nirvanic level. That nirvanic level and the samsaric level – remember they’re there all the time, the energy is vibrating on these things, it’s just that the mind has to become involved with it. When the mind becomes involved with it, the energies are involved with it, and the energies here on this complete stage will be generated in the form of this nirvanic level. And so you perceive the nirvanic level – actually with eye consciousness, not just mental consciousness – and at that time you wouldn’t perceive the samsaric level, but we can’t maintain that all the time. So this is the pathway level more in the sense of the way that it is described in Uttaratantra (Furthest Everlasting Stream) – sometimes tainted, sometimes untainted, tainted and untainted mixed together.

Does a Buddha Perceive the Samsaric Level of Appearances?

When we are a Buddha (the resultant level), then we are forever staying with this nirvanic level. The mind is involved with this nirvanic level. Now it becomes a very difficult question and open to debate: does a Buddha perceive impure appearances, the samsaric level of appearances? If a Buddha doesn’t perceive them at all, then there’s a problem here of: how do you help others? And the usual solution to that dilemma is that a Buddha’s mental continuum doesn’t generate these samsaric appearances, but a Buddha’s able to perceive these samsaric appearances being generated on other people’s – other beings’ – mental continuums. So a Buddha’s aware of both levels of appearance.

This is very relevant to our understanding of tantra, that there are two levels of appearance, samsaric and nirvanic appearances, and energy, which are inseparable, simultaneous; and it’s when the mind is involved with one or another level, that actually that’s what we experience. It’s because of that, that the tantra practice is not something which is crazy. It is something which is based on what actually is the case. So let’s take a few moments to digest that and then we can have some questions.

Pure Appearance: Perceiving the Nirvanic Level of Appearances

How, if we are trained sufficiently in visualization, eventually the energies involved with eye consciousness will actually take the shape of this nirvanic level – of a Buddha-figure or a mandala or whatever.

The body has many different types of energy-winds. There are the five major winds or energies and the five secondary ones. There’s no need to go through a list. The major ones are involved with things like digestion, and motion of the body, life-sustaining energy, the energy that voids things out of the body (waste, and so on), and the energy that takes things into the body (in terms of breath, digestion, and so on). Now the secondary energies are the energies that are involved (or winds that are involved) with each of the five senses, the physical senses: seeing; hearing; smelling; tasting; and physical sensations, experiencing physical sensations.

And we know from Western science that when seeing takes place, what’s actually happening is (and I may not be totally accurate, so a scientist here can correct me or at least be patient with me) that photons hit the retina, or whatever it is – the various photosensitive cells and apparatus of the eyes – this gets transformed into electrical impulses (probably some chemical things are involved as well), so that impulse is transmitted or travels through the nervous system to the brain. And then a very complex process happens which allows us to see, to understand those electrical impulses and chemical things that are happening. I often describe that as the generation of a mental hologram.

Now the Buddhist equivalent of this would be that the energy-winds – that would be equivalent to the electrical impulses and chemicals – take the information from the object, so it takes the shape of the object of the sight, or the sound, and so on. We’re just talking about information, basically, and this is called an “aspect” – there’s the Tibetan word “nampa” (rnam-pa). So it has an aspect of the object, a cognitive aspect, that then is going to be the shape of that cognition, the shape of the hologram. And we have this with sense consciousness, we have this with mental consciousness.

And so here, by training enough with visualizations (so that’s mental consciousness) and imagination – you imagine not just sights, but you imagine sounds, and fragrances, and tastes, and physical sensations – so by imagining all of that, we build up a certain habit, tendency. Let’s not get into the technical difference between a tendency and a habit, let’s just use the word “habit” in general. So we build up a habit of this, so that the mind is quite habituated to this type of configuration of the energy. And when we have worked sufficiently with the subtle energy system through very complicated yogas requiring full concentration, perfect concentration… Otherwise, when you start to manipulate the energies in the body, if you don’t have concentration you can get really damaged in terms of the energy system: you get very nervous, get all sorts of disorders…. Then it’s a combination of that previous training, and the visualization, and the training in the yoga practices – with bodhichitta motivation, and all of that, so you get a strong boost of energy from motivation – then those energy winds (in other words, the information from the eyes, or the ears, and so on) will not take on the ordinary form, but will take on this pure form, because the two are actually simultaneously occurring.

The Purpose of Detail in Visualization

Of course you have to get into the whole discussion of voidness. Are they occurring only on the side of the object, by itself? Is it occurring only on the side of the mind, by itself? Do they dependently arise on the two? Obviously the more sophisticated Buddhist answer would be that it arises dependently on the two, and on the interaction of the two. So these pure forms later take the form of a Buddha.

Well this becomes a very interesting question that I wanted to get into, actually, in our discussion, which is: how much importance do we need to place on the details of the visualizations? What is the purpose of the details of the visualization? There are so many Buddha-figures and so many mandalas, and in many of these mandalas there are hundreds of different figures, and the descriptions of the visualizations are extremely detailed. So is that really what everything looks like, and what everything is going to look like? And, if so, is it going to look like the way that it’s pictured in Kalachakra system? In the Guhyasamaja system? In the Chakrasamvara system? In the Hevajra system? In the Vajrayogini system? In what system? Or is it going to look like that in all of them, all together? What’s it going to look like?

Now of course that’s a very difficult question to answer – unless you’re a Buddha – but my own understanding of this is that that’s not so important. These various systems with all these visualizations, and all these details, are basically a method. They are a method for putting together many, many different things. That’s the first meaning of the word “tantra” that we were talking about. So everything in the visualization is representing some understanding, some state of mind, some insight from sutra. And by imagining them in a graphic form it helps us to put them all together. And by imagining them in the form of a Buddha-figure – as opposed to each of our ordinary fingers, and each of our ordinary toes, stand for this and that – by imagining these things represented by the various physical features of these Buddha-figures, it helps us to generate an appearance of them that is not so mixed with confusion. Our ordinary bodies, the ordinary bodies of everybody else, are things which normally serve as focal objects for our disturbing emotions: attachment, desire, lust, anger, hostility, jealousy, arrogance, pride, naivety, etc. So we’re very accustomed to seeing ordinary bodies with disturbing emotions. Therefore working with the ordinary body, and the parts of the ordinary body, to represent the different aspects of the spiritual path that we want to put together runs the risk of mixing all of that with the disturbing emotions. Therefore we want to visualize all these various Buddha-forms. Of course we could have attachment to them, and so on, but they are less mixed with our habit of feeling disturbing emotions towards them. They are a purer object in that way.

The pure appearance has two levels. When we talk about pure appearance, we’re talking about conventional truth – or relative truth, or superficial truth, however you want to talk about it – and deepest truth. And so appearance doesn’t – remember, the word “appearance” in Buddhism doesn’t mean visual only; it means the arising of something. So there is a pure appearance of a superficial truth of something – in other words, the form that it appears in – and that of course will be dependent on individual people, individual beings. What’s helpful for this one? What’s helpful for that one? But the deepest level of appearance is as a dependently arising phenomenon, not as something existing by its own power, there all by itself, independently of everything – this impossible way of appearing.

This is what is very important here – that this appearance is one of a form that doesn’t appear truly existent. It appears as something dependently arising, and it takes a shape dependent on the mind that is interacting with it. Therefore the specific form of it I don’t think is so relevant, so important – that it has this color face and that color face, and is holding this and that, and its fingernail polish is this color or that color, and does it have a belly button or not. I mean, these are more trivial points of it.

Why is there all the detail? And the reason for all the detail – there are many reasons for it – but the reason for it is to help us to develop perfect concentration on a very, very complex system. Because if we are going to become a Buddha, we’re going to have to deal with a very complex system of everything that exists: all the beings, everything that they experience, the environment, and so on. So we want to train the mind to be able to gain concentration, single-pointedly, on a huge system. And likewise with generation stage practice, which is the practice on the highest class of tantra in which you work with visualization… You have the gross stage of that practice and you have the subtle level of that practice, the subtle stage. The gross stage is, you know, you train to gain concentration on a huge extensive system with all these details. And on the subtle level, you train to get concentration microscopically, because that microscopic focus and visualization will enable us to actually manipulate and move the various energies within the body. So you need both.

So all the details are to help us to develop this larger aspect of concentration. And also all the details are necessary because of what they represent. There are many things that we want to represent. Does it ultimately matter whether the jewelry has this shape or that shape? I think not. So what is important with these visualizations is to train the mind, and train the mind to bring many, many things together with appearances that we don’t normally have disturbing emotions associated with. Now of course we could have the disturbing emotion of confusion, and frustration, and all that, trying to visualize all these things. That will arise for many of us. But that’s why we need training in patience, and joyful perseverance, and so on, beforehand, so that we don’t get so frustrated by it.

The Importance of Divine Pride

Tsongkhapa gave a very, very clear and excellent guideline for visualization. He said in the beginning the important thing is to have just some general vague appearance. Don’t worry about the details. And then to emphasize much more what’s called the “divine pride” (lha’i nga rgyal). There are two aspects of a visualization or imagination; there is the appearance aspect and there is the divine pride. Divine pride is mentally labeling “me” on our mental continuum that is generating this, being aware of that, because the “me” obviously can be mentally labeled on that. But being aware of that, so that this is how I am appearing – conventional “me,” not solid “me.” And the main thing to emphasize is that divine pride of actually feeling that this is something which can be generated from my mental continuum. It is a level of vibration of energy, that quantum level that’s there, and with sufficient practice this is what will be dominant.

Once we have that divine pride on a general appearance, then, Tsongkhapa says the detail will come into focus automatically, the more concentrated our mind is. Obviously you have to know what the detail looks like, but don’t worry about it. Especially don’t worry about it in the beginning. This is a big fault that most people have when they practice tantra in the beginning. They want to get it perfect, and so they are worried about all the little tiny details of the visualization. And then they get so frustrated, and so confused, that the practice becomes very difficult for them and sometimes they just give up. Tsongkhapa said don’t worry about the detail, just get something going in your imagination and work on the divine pride – which of course is all based on understanding voidness and mental labeling.

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path

This brings in another point which I want to mention and I want to emphasize. When we are looking at this explanation that I’ve just given of tantra, then I think it becomes quite clear: the importance of the three principal paths, the three principal pathways of mind that Tsongkhapa emphasized so much.

Renunciation: you have to have renunciation of the ordinary samsaric level of appearance, realizing that all it entails is suffering. You have to renounce that. You determine to be free from this. “I am determined to be free from this, and I want to get out of this.” This is – this level of dealing with my experience in my life – just is bringing suffering, and just prevents me from helping anybody. So you have to renounce that in order to want to work with this nirvanic level. Without that renunciation, it is totally impossible.

Then you need bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is the mind which is aimed at enlightenment, my own future enlightenment, my own individual future enlightenment, that can be imputed on my mental continuum. And I want to achieve this in order to benefit everybody. And what’s motivating me to get there is the wish to benefit everybody. What is this future enlightenment that we are aiming for? It’s this nirvanic appearance, which is generated from our mental continuum, and it can be generated purely, by itself – not by itself, but is the dominant thing – further down the line, the development of my mental continuum and my spiritual practice. So I’m aiming for this. This is bodhichitta. Why? To be able to benefit everybody. If you don’t have that bodhichitta aim for this nirvanic level, and you don’t have it because you want to benefit everybody, then you don’t have the energy to achieve it and you’re not going to want to achieve it.

And then you need the understanding of voidness, that I don’t exist totally independently on this level, and what appears to my mind is totally solidly existent, and that’s it. Or that I am this Buddha-figure, solidly, independently. Then you might as well be Cleopatra or Napoleon in your visualization.

So these three aspects, principal aspects of the path, are totally essential for tantra practice. And it’s very dangerous to practice tantra without them. What level of them do we need? A working level, so that it actually does affect us. That we can generate them in a labored (rtsol-bcas) way (that’s the technical term) – in other words, by going through a line of reasoning to generate them. In the case of bodhichitta, for example: equanimity toward everybody, everybody in a previous life has been my mother, they’ve been kind to me, etc. This type of way of building up – either renunciation, or bodhichitta, or the understanding of voidness – through steps. That, you need to be able to do. And to have some conviction that it’s true, not just technically able to generate something, but “this is valid.” This is a valid thing. Renunciation is a valid thing. Or bodhichitta. It is valid that everybody has at some point or another been my mother, or father, or a closest friend, or whatever. You have to believe it, in simple words.

These are necessary, otherwise tantra practice can very easily become just a game – a trip to Buddhist Disneyland, I call it – of working with all these visualizations. Now I am the Good Red Fairy, and I’m going to lead everybody to Fairyland – this type of thing. And I’m going to get excited by visualizing myself as a naked lady – this type of thing. This is complete misuse of tantra. It’s an escape into fantasy land. It’s not dealing with overcoming suffering.

These are some points that are very important with tantra.