Questions about Stages of Progress and Tantra

In our earlier session, we talked about the obstacles that prevent us from being connected to others, and the horrifying nature of our behavior. Before we continue, are there some questions or things you would like to discuss?

My question is about scientists, for example, who speak about something in front of an audience, and these facts that he or she presents may stimulate negative emotions from the audience. An extreme example being Giordano Bruno, for example, who, in the sixteenth century, angered people when he spoke about what turned out to be true, such as the idea that stars were distant suns with their own planets. He was burned at the stake for that. In this case, would it be a constructive act of behavior when someone speaks something that is truthful but at the same time might stimulate anger from some other people, or is it a mixture of constructive and destructive behavior? 

Well, that is a complex issue, actually, if we start to analyze it. On the one hand, we have the definition of a destructive type of behavior, which is a way of acting, speaking or thinking that is motivated by a disturbing emotion − such as anger, greed, arrogance, jealousy or naivety. If the person was just giving this information out of arrogance, to show how smart he was, that would be destructive. Or if he was doing it in order to make the people angry, that would also be destructive. 

However, when we speak about naivety, the naivety that underlies both constructive and destructive compulsive behavior, the person could have had a good motivation; for example, that he wanted to help people, to instruct and inform them, and so on. Nonetheless, even if it wasn’t an ego-trip − to demonstrate how smart he was − it could have been that he was naive about how the audience would respond. Not discriminating between what would be appropriate or inappropriate for an audience − that’s naivety. Maybe the person didn’t even know what level the audience would be at or what their response would be − that is often the case. People aren’t ready, for the most part, to deal with hard, cold facts, such as statistics. 

My assistant, for instance, loves statistics, and no matter what we do, he often quotes statistics and hard facts. Every decision that we need to make has to be based on statistical analysis, and I confess that often I get quite impatient and annoyed with him just quoting statistics all the time; fortunately, he is not here at the moment. And although he might be correct − I don’t check his statistics − nevertheless, we have to analyze our annoyance if we’re in the audience. That’s what’s interesting. 

The annoyance could be because “I don’t want to hear this,” because it destroys my belief, which is based on just “I think so,” which has no basis, of course. We also have to consider the fact that not everybody operates on a rational basis, as there’s an emotional, irrational basis for people’s behavior as well, despite the fact that statistics might say, “People act in this way, or that way.” The skill for the speaker, in this case, is using the appropriate tone of voice. It shouldn’t be the tone of voice of “You’re stupid, because statistics say this and this and that.” This would, of course, elicit annoyance and anger on the part of the person listening; they become very defensive. “Statistics say this and this and this” − that type of presentation of statistical facts is going to annoy anybody.

This is why one of the great characteristics or qualities of a Buddha is skilful methods. A Buddha knows how to present facts in graded doses, according to what people are ready to understand, and with a wonderful tone of voice and method of explaining it, which doesn’t cause people to become defensive. However, this is very difficult to do. So, presenting facts by itself is neither constructive nor destructive. Everything depends on the motivation, and the method of delivery − the skillful means that are used.

The term “refuge,” you usually translate as “safe direction.” Are they translations of the same word for both “refuge” and “safe direction,” and if so, would you please show how to translate it?

I translate refuge as “safe direction” primarily because it has that connotation. It is not the literal translation. The word itself, “sarana” in Sanskrit, or “kyab” in Tibetan, means “protection.” The challenge is that the expression with which it is used is, literally, “to go toward protection,” which is very awkward to say in our languages. “I go for refuge” is how it’s usually said, and I always found it a little bit of an odd expression in English. I’m not sure what it’s like in Russian. I mean, it always sounded to me as though I go to something, like I go to the store to buy milk. In other words, it’s like I go to the Buddha, so the Buddha is going to give me something, refuge. However, it’s not a passive action like that; refuge is not intended to be passive. 

Further, we have causal and resultant refuge. Causal refuge is in those who have attained enlightenment − Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; they’ve attained it on their side and provide safe direction. Then, there is resultant refuge, which is where we, as regular people, “go for refuge” in our own attainment of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, which hasn’t happened yet. Our own attainment of Buddhahood has not yet happened, but that not-yet-happening exists as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the causes for it. These causes will give rise to our enlightenment when all the conditions and the build-up of the strength of the causes, and so on, are complete, but these causes do have the potential to give rise to our enlightenment. These causes refer to our Buddha-nature factors. That’s why I always start with prostrations to those who’ve attained enlightenment, to our own future enlightenment that we are aiming to attain, and to our own Buddha-nature that will enable us to attain it. That way of doing refuge and prostrations is based on this analysis of causal and resultant refuge. 

How can I go toward my future enlightenment, which hasn’t happened yet, or to my Buddha-nature factors, but not do anything to reach and activate them?  Are they going to give me protection all by themselves without me having to do anything, but only submitting to their power? Are they my saviors? That’s not Buddhism.  It doesn’t make any sense to go to them for refuge as if they were saviors. Remember, refuge has the connotation of protection. “We go in their direction” seems to work better with the correct connotation. 

By going in their direction, we provide protection to ourselves. This is the meaning of the word “Dharma,” which is something that helps us avoid causing suffering to ourselves. It is something that helps us prevent that − like being careful when crossing the road, looking both ways to prevent being hit by a car. That’s what the word “Dharma” means − a preventive measure, something to prevent. Dharma literally comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “to hold back,” to prevent something from happening. 

That’s my reasoning for using “go in the direction.” In addition, it’s a safe and positive direction; it’s safe in the sense that it prevents us from, and we avoid, creating more suffering for ourselves. I came up with this new terminology based on my experience that a lot of people tend to reach a certain plateau in Dharma study because of the jargon, and many don’t really investigate what the jargon actually means. Then of course, my assistant would say, “Well, what are the statistics for that?” But I don’t have the statistics; it’s just ,“I think so.” So − I confess − I think so, based on my own experience and the few people that I’ve spoken with, that they don’t investigate. I don’t have statistics to back that up. He’s right to ask, but still, I think so. 

For a certain moment, I feel that everything is good everything is good with family, everything is good at work, etc. A person has a sense of being at the top of the mountain, then the only way to go is down. What could you advise in this case for such a person, where the only way to go is down?

Well, that doesn’t necessarily follow that the only way to go from an achievement is down. If we are talking about a path to enlightenment, or a path to liberation, for example, this leads to a state that is going to remain stable where, once it is attained, there is no falling down. With its attainment, we achieve a true stopping, the third noble truth. It is the true stopping of all the causes for going back down, so there’s no possibility of regressing. This is something that is very difficult to become convinced of, because it is based on the understanding of the natural purity of the mind − that it is not naturally stained or adulterated by these causes for problems. 

One of the vows along the path is to never be satisfied with our understanding. We need to go further and further all the way to liberation and enlightenment so that we get out of samsara forever. We want to do that because one of the characteristics of samsara, uncontrollably recurring existence, and that our circumstances repeatedly go up and down. Things can be going really, really well for quite a long time, and we think, “Well, I’ve really gotten over getting angry,” and then all of a sudden somebody comes into our life who is the most annoying person we can imagine. Then, all of a sudden, after many years of Dharma practice, we start getting angry with this person. I can tell you from personal experience, this happens. The only way to deal with it is what is explained in the Eight Verses of Mind Training. That is to regard this person as being like a treasure, someone who has come into our life to teach us that, although we really had thought we had gotten somewhere, but we still have a long way to go. A good example is my statistics guy − all my beliefs, all my policies, everything I did, I had to prove with statistics, and there I was with no statistics, just “I think so.” And I got very annoyed, but he was acting as my great teacher − very helpful.

Are there any examples of people who achieved this state of mind where nobody is able to annoy them? Are there some of these kinds of people in our contemporary life?

Well, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that he still gets annoyed. And I think he’s probably the most highly developed person in the world today. However, he says he only stays annoyed for a few seconds, and then gets over it. I think that is the direction we want to go in − that our annoyance doesn’t last very long, that we eventually get over it more and more quickly. 

Think about it; it makes a lot of sense. Over beginningless time − that’s a long time, forever − we have been building up the habits of ignorance, anger and so on. These are really strong habits that now have a lot of power behind them. On the other hand, how strong are our habits of patience, love and wisdom, and so on? They’re very weak when compared to beginningless anger and ignorance. With all our practice – it gets back to neuroplasticity − we are trying to build up stronger and stronger positive habits and weaken the negative ones. However, completely obliterating the negative ones is very tough. All we can do is work to gradually make them weaker and weaker and weaker, and gradually make the positive habits stronger and stronger. It’s quite a gradual process. 

In the beginning, what is helpful is to try to avoid the conditions, the circumstances, that activate the negative habits. This is why Togme Zangpo says in 37 Bodhisattva Practices that when it is too tough staying where we have been living or have grown up, and everybody causes us to get completely angry and attached and so on, it’s good to leave for a while. In doing so, we avoid the circumstances that trigger all these negative patterns. Then, we work on strengthening the positive habits. Of course, these uncontrollably recurring patterns are going to manifest wherever we go, but still, we have this opportunity in a new place to put more emphasis on building positive habits. However, when we reach some level of stability, we should go back to the challenging situations. Then, we can check how much progress we have actually made? And we want to be challenged, because then it shows what we still have left to work on. This requires a lot of courage, however. Tibetans translate “bodhisattva” into Tibetan by adding one syllable to it, which means “hero, courageous one.” 

It takes a lot of courage to face our disturbing emotions and destructive behavior, and not just be satisfied if we’ve got them a little under control; we need to really persevere and go deeper. The word for perseverance in Sanskrit, “virya,” is related to “vira”, which means “a hero.” It’s also related to our English word “virile,” you know, “virile masculine strength.” Basically, it requires heroic courage to persevere and not give up. So, don’t give up! Just because things are going well doesn’t mean that nobody is going to come into our life to challenge us again. When they come, welcome them. 

I have a question about sutra and tantra. Sutra is the path of causes and tantra is the path of results. From one point of view, it is possible to reach enlightenment through the practice of sutra, which takes three countless eons. But at the same time, in Lama Tsongkhapa’s work, it’s said that, by practicing tantra, it’s possible to achieve enlightenment in three years and three phases of the moon, and that without tantra, it is impossible to achieve enlightenment. How are we to understand this? 

It’s an issue really, in Buddhism, I must say, in terms of internal sectarianism. Each of the tenet systems are going to say, “Through our understanding, you will attain liberation,” or “Through our understanding you will attain enlightenment.” Then, the next tenet system declares itself to be more profound – not based on statistics but based on the idea that “this is more profound.” So, it says, “Well, you can’t really go all the way with the previous system, it’s a step along the way, but to go deeper, you need this,” meaning you need their understanding. We have these tenet systems in Buddhism, and even within the Mahayana tenet systems, we have sutra and tantra. And within tantra, we have different classes of tantra, and everyone claims that we can achieve, in the Mahayana systems, enlightenment through their “level of understanding,” so that’s why I call this a bit of internal sectarianism. 

It’s very difficult to pin down these teachings with statistics. My dear assistant has brainwashed me into believing in statistics now, and where are the statistics that say, “With the Chittamatra understanding, we can only get so far, and if we want to go further, we really need Madhyamaka?” Did Tsongkhapa base his conclusions on statistics, or just from logic and his experience? I don’t know. 

If you look at Shantideva, he points out that the Hinayana systems say that, through the understanding of impermanence and the four noble truths, you can gain liberation. Shantideva points out that that understanding gets rid of the rough disturbing emotions, but there are still some subtle ones that are left. This is one of the tests to see if an understanding has brought us to liberation: we need to examine ourselves to see if we have really achieved a true stopping of the disturbing emotions or is there a little bit of them left. 

In terms of sutra and tantra, Tsongkhapa said that the Prasangika view – in the way that he understood it, which is completely different from the way that everybody else understood it, for Tsongkhapa was an unbelievable revolutionary and his view became the Gelugpa view of Prasangika – this Prasangika view is held in common with both sutra and tantra; there is no difference between the two. In fact, the view is exactly the same to attain either liberation or enlightenment. Nobody said that before; he expressed that we need exactly the same understanding for attaining both liberation and enlightenment and with both the sutra and tantra paths. 

In terms of the necessity for tantra, he was speaking about anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, not the other classes of tantra. Tsongkhapa said that once we reach the tenth bhumi, the tenth bodhisattva stage, just before enlightenment − at that point, we need to access the clear-light mind with our nonconceptual cognition of voidness to get rid of the most subtle level of obscurations preventing omniscience. To do this, we need the anuttarayoga methods. 

Again, whether there are statistics to back all of this up, I have no idea. Nonetheless, it makes sense in terms of theory. Will enlightenment automatically happen? Do we need to actually practice anuttarayoga methods to make our attainment of enlightenment happen? Again, I don’t know. 

Further, Kedrub Je, one of Tsongkhapa’s disciples, makes a big point of saying that all the anuttarayoga tantra systems are equal in being able to bring us to enlightenment. It isn’t that one is better than the other, that one gets us a better enlightenment than the other, despite the fact that each is going to say, “We are the king of all tantras,” or “We are the best.” They make such claims to give people encouragement, but that doesn’t mean that one system is better than another; that, for example, Kalachakra is better than Guhyasamaja. 

Let’s go back to the topic of sutra, and this is the point that I was starting to make before, which is that we have, from beginningless time, these negative habits, and hardly any strength to the positive ones. Even if we get a correct intellectual understanding of voidness, it alone doesn’t free us. In fact, there’s no way we can attain even nonconceptual cognition of voidness just based on an intellectual understanding. We need a tremendous amount of positive force behind that − positive force coming from our development of renunciation, bodhichitta and so on. If we compare our beginningless buildup of negative habits to a few hours of meditation on positive habits, obviously we are not going to get rid of negative one like this. 

With this line of thinking, it makes perfect sense that we are going to need three zillion eons of building up positive force for positive habits, which is a short time for overcoming our negative habits compared to the beginningless time spent building up their negative force. How much positive force we need is not the point. The point is that it requires an unbelievable amount of positive force. If we think of this process in terms of building up “merit,” that sounds like points and then we win the game. Rather, positive force is what is needed to overcome and obliterate negative force we’ve been building up with no beginning. How else are we going to get rid of it? It’s arrogant to think, “Well, I’ve done 100,000 prostrations, so now I’m never going to get angry again.” That’s pretty arrogant, isn’t it? Even if we’ve done the prostrations perfectly. 

My point is that it takes great courage to commit to building up positive for forever − well, not forever, but to say, “For three zillion eons I’m going to do this.” Don’t be naive. When thinking we can reach enlightenment in one lifetime with anuttarayoga tantra, we may think to ourselves, “Well, if that’s the case, it can’t be so hard.” But that attainment is not going to happen for no cause and won’t happen in this lifetime if we haven’t already built up an unbelievable amount of positive force in previous lifetimes, so that, in this lifetime, we can take the final steps. Yes, we can do it in three years and three phases of the moon as mentioned in Kalachakra, but that’s symbolic. To get to that clear-light level of mind with a nonconceptual cognition of voidness is no simple task. We need to have tremendous positive force. Yes, we can do ngondro, preliminary practices, but that’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of the amount of positive force we need to overcome these beginningless negative habits. 

So, what should be done during these three years and three cycles of the moon?

The Kalachakra texts say, “You can attain enlightenment through anuttarayoga tantra in as little as three years and three phases of the moon.” What does that mean? It says this in other tantras as well, but the reason that number is given is because it comes out of Kalachakra. In the course of a day, the breath flow alternates twelve times between going primarily through the right nostril and the left nostril. When it makes the transition from one nostril to the other, one breath, called a deep awareness breath, goes into the central channel. If we take a one-hundred-year life span, the number of breaths that would go into the central channel during that time would be 21,600. Therefore, taking this same number − Kalachakra loves to have all these correspondences of numbers − if, once we already have attained nonconceptual cognition of voidness with a clear-light mind, we stack 21,600 drops of what is called “immutable bliss” in our central channel with such a mind, then we attain enlightenment. 

The number is the same as this number of deep awareness breaths. If we take that number of moments of so-called deep awareness breaths, and we were to line them up consecutively, as if we had them at every moment, the amount of time that would cover is three years and three phases of the moon. Based on that symmetry, it is said we can attain enlightenment through anuttarayoga tantra within three years and three phases of the moon − it doesn’t, however, mean that literally. Yes, if we stacked 21,600 drops of immutable bliss, consecutively each moment, for three years and three phases of the moon, yes, we would reach enlightenment, but remember, starting only once we had reached the clear-light mind with nonconceptual cognition of voidness.

We need to understand what all these numbers mean, and why there are all these numbers. Then, we can realize that we have to put in a tremendous amount of work, no matter what. However, it is said in the Guhyasamaja anuttarayoga system that when we reach the so-called “isolated mind” stage, at that point, if we’ve been practicing anuttarayoga tantra with a Chittamatra view, we will automatically switch to a Prasangika view. This is because it will become so evident from our practice that the existence of things can only be accounted for by mental labeling. Through our practice, we will automatically come to this realization. Basically, our view will automatically switch. 

That makes me wonder, if, when we reach the tenth bhumi through sutra methods and we realize that, to attain enlightenment, we will need to achieve a clear light mind with the nonconceptual cognition of voidness that we already have, at what point on the complete stage would we need to start? Or would we need to go back to the generation stage in order to build up the causes for attaining the Form Bodies of a Buddha?  I don’t know. These are questions that are good to ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or someone like that. 

For example, from the Prasangika point of view, a shravaka arhat will have to go back to the path of seeing if they go on to the bodhisattva path after becoming an arhat. What is the case with a tenth-bhumi sutra bodhisattva going on to anuttarayoga tantra to get rid of those subtlest of the subtle obscurations preventing omniscience? 

I’ve gone way, way off into advanced theory, but bringing it back to our own practical experience, the question is: Where do we start our tantra practice? How far do we need to be along the sutra path? That’s really the question, isn’t it? We could wait until we’ve gotten super far into sutra before starting it, but what point is that? We want to avoid jumping prematurely into tantra, before we have a good sutra basis. These are very important questions. 

All of this comes back to the lam-rim. We could study the lam-rim in a traditional way, having no idea what comes next – start with just the initial level, and have no idea about the intermediate or advanced level. However, nowadays, there’s too much information available; most of us have read something about lam-rim, so we know what the scope of the path is. Because of that, we now can think in terms of, “OK, I’m heading for the advanced scope, I’m heading for Mahayana, and, so now as I go through the initial scope training, what is the importance of this initial scope? How does it apply for reaching the advanced scope, Mahayana?” Thinking like that, we are always keeping the rest of the path in mind. Obviously, to help others − this is how I’ve been approaching it here − we have to stop acting destructively. Further, we want to stop acting destructively not only because acting that way hurts us, but also because stopping acting that way helps others − we keep this goal in mind. 

What is the real significance of tantra practice, if tantra is what we are aiming for, because it is so well-known now; particularly, anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class? What is the essence of it? Is it to be able to visualize ourselves with a lot of arms? So what? Is that the ultimate aim of all our practices? No! The essence of anuttarayoga tantra is transforming the process of death, bardo and rebirth in order to access, in a similar way, the clear-light mind. Also, to be able to generate from it the Form Bodies of a Buddha − rather than the forms of bardo and rebirth − the Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya forms. Basically, this is the essence of what tantra is all about.

If we have some idea of the whole path − that’s what we are aiming for, even from the beginning − then, we start with the initial scope of lam-rim. If, however, we don’t believe in rebirth, if we don’t start to really consider that seriously, then to transform death, bardo and rebirth is total nonsense. So, we really have to start thinking about all of this, and examine what rebirth is all about. And then, with the basic initial scope, if we act destructively, we understand that we’re going to get worse rebirths, and we don’t want that. Instead, we want to get rid of this whole rebirth issue, to transform it. From the very beginning, then, we are working with this aim in mind, of what tantra is going to actually work with.

If we just want to improve things in this lifetime − which is where certainly almost all of us begin − our interest in Dharma will be about wanting to make our life a little bit better. This aim is perfectly fine, as that is what I call “Dharma-lite.” We don’t need tantra for that. With such an aim, we don’t really have the scope of mind to be able to know what we are doing with these visualizations, and then it just very easily becomes an escape into fantasyland. 

So, with a Dharma-lite approach, we start, realistically, thinking, “I want to see from Dharma what could be of benefit to me in this lifetime.” Wonderful. Dharma has tremendous things to offer for that. However, if we are interested in tantra, our approach to the Dharma needs to be the real thing − what I call “real thing Dharma,” and that must include accepting rebirth and all the things that tantra is involved with. If we’re going to be interested in tantra, then, as my teacher Serkong Rinpoche always said, well, be serious about it. It’s no game. Be serious and start from the beginning. Basically, we need to know what we’re getting into. 

I’m sorry I just went on and on. Not based on statistics, but just based on, “I think this is of benefit.” Maybe it’s of help. Let’s take a break, and then we’ll get back to our discussion.