We have spoken about how it is possible to follow and practice tantra at a Dharma-Lite level in which we are thinking only about this lifetime and doing the practices in order to benefit this lifetime alone. In this case, our goal or objective is to attain enlightenment within this lifetime. With the Real-Thing Dharma, we are thinking in terms of past and future lives as well. We saw that in practicing either version we need to, of course, have the preparation. This would be the common and uncommon preliminaries or preparatory practices. We also need to receive an empowerment or initiation, taking and keeping the vows to the best of our ability. Finally, we need to establish a close bond or connection with a spiritual teacher.
The Benefits of Mantra Recitation at the Dharma-Lite Level
The next question that we can examine is, if we are practicing tantra on this lite level for only this lifetime and not thinking in terms of future lives, how can we actually get the most benefit from it? What can we actually do if we are not really prepared yet to practice on a very deep level?
One thing that is very helpful is the recitation of mantras. This is in fact what most lay Tibetans do as their practice. Many of them, particularly when they are old, spend all their time reciting mantras. This is very good. What is the benefit?
We need to look at the meaning of the word “mantra”; man is short for manas, the mind, and tra comes from the root meaning to “protect” or “save.” It is something that is to protect the mind. What does that actually mean? We can look at this on both superficial and deeper levels.
If we look in terms of our mental state, we find that very often our minds are racing with all sorts of thoughts. The thinking process, of course, can be beneficial; to figure out how to do something, we need to think. It can also just be a process of worrying. So much of our time is filled with worry or just unnecessary chatter. At times, it feels like we’re becoming a cricket in that we can’t stop ourselves from singing a song over and over again, one that we can’t get out of our heads. In German they call that an “ear worm.” We have these very uncomfortable states of mind that occur. There are compulsive types of issues that we are thinking about, and we need some sort of protection from them.
We can look at mantra as some sort of mental judo. If the verbal energy of the mind is so strong that it’s going “blah blah blah,” stuck on a song or a television commercial or something horrible like that, unless we are very highly trained in concentration methods, just trying to stop it by deciding to be quiet is difficult. If we can do that, wonderful; however, if we can’t do that, then what we can do is flip the energy. Like in judo, use the momentum of that mental verbal energy to recite a mantra instead of reciting a TV commercial. This can be very helpful.
The rhythm of a mantra is very steady. If we can also focus on the meaning of the mantra, the state of mind that we are going to generate with that, for example, compassion with “OM MANI PADME HUM,” or clarity of mind and understanding with the mantra of Manjushri, these sorts of things, this certainly protects the mind.
Actually, since it is very helpful to know many methods, let me share another method, although it isn’t mantra and doesn’t have to do with tantra. This is also very effective when we have an ear worm, when we have a tune uncontrollably going through our heads. The method is to do a math problem in our head. This is also very effective in stopping that compulsive repetition of a song, melody, or some other junk going on. It switches the mind completely to another mode of analysis. It’s actually quite beneficial to do some multiplication tables or something like that.
Mantra is the tantra method for doing this mental judo and it is very helpful. Mantra is intended to help us to keep focused on a certain state of mind. If we are going to generate compassion, it’s wonderful if we can just feel it, but if we also have a mantra going at the same time, it helps to keep us more focused. It is recommended even in the Seven Point Mind Training to accompany tonglen practice, giving and taking, with a mantra.
Most people also do mantra recitation with a mala or rosary beads. That can become fairly mindless if we just exercise our thumbs, but it also engages us more. There is so much emphasis in Buddhism on body, speech and mind and we want to get the three integrated, or, in other words, be manifesting a type of practice or state of mind in body, speech and mind simultaneously. Of course, there are mudras and these sorts of things. Physically moving the beads, verbally doing the mantra, and mentally generating the state of mind appropriate to that mantra makes a complete package. This helps us to really focus. We aren’t multitasking with our body, speech and mind, with each doing something different. It is a very integrative type of practice.
One of the deeper benefits of mantra recitation is the shaping of the breath. The word for breath, the word for energy and the word for wind are all the same word – prana in Sanskrit and lung in Tibetan. If we can shape the breath with a mantra, we also shape the energies of the body. Through more advanced breathing techniques such as vajra-breathing, for example, this helps to centralize the energies so that they don’t run wild in our body.
When we talk about the subtle energies of the body, they are the energies of the disturbing emotions. Most of us can recognize when our minds are upset – we feel nervous. That is the physical feeling of being upset. The energy is really flowing in a horrible uncomfortable way within our bodies. Mantra is also a way of shaping the energies to try to get more stable and more focused.
What we want to do is to get our subtle energies more and more centralized. This entails more complex practices at the complete stage of the highest class of tantra practice, anuttarayoga. So, we should be aware that mantra is something that has deeper meanings and applications than just reciting, with a mala, OM MANI PADME HUM all day long.
The Three Most Powerful Things in the World
Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, always used to say that there are three most powerful things in this world. They are medicine, technology, and mantras. We can understand that medicine and technology are very powerful for helping others and ourselves to accomplish many things; however, what about mantras? On a very superficial level, we might think that a mantra is almost like some magic spell we can say. If we can say the magic words, all sorts of extraordinary powers will be bestowed on us by just saying these words. This is one level of understanding his statement, but the old Serkong Rinpoche never really explained that. Now we have the next generation Serkong Rinpoche, his reincarnation, who is also my teacher, at thirty-two years old now. I asked him what did your predecessor mean? That’s how to refer to the previous incarnation. You don’t ask, “What did you mean?” as that is a little bit presumptuous. I asked, “What did your predecessor mean by saying that mantra is the most powerful thing in the world together with medicine and technology?”
He said that it was referring to the Heart Sutra. In the Heart Sutra it says that the most powerful mantra is the mantra of Prajnaparamita, GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA. This represents the five progressive stages, the five paths, for attaining liberation or enlightenment on the basis of the understanding of emptiness or voidness. This concerns how we integrate into ourselves the understanding that things don’t exist in the impossible ways that our minds project and that we believe correspond to reality; yet, nevertheless, everything functions.
The meaning of why mantra is so powerful is that it actually refers to the understanding of emptiness and the understanding of voidness, the path that will bring us to liberation or enlightenment. That’s why, together with medicine and technology, it makes it one of the most powerful things. I found this very helpful and insightful and also sort of neat that the reincarnation explained what the predecessor actually meant by that. It gave me a little bit further confidence, because nobody else could explain this when I asked what he could have possibly meant. However, then it became clear that it was in reference to the Heart Sutra.
Therefore, mantra is something that we can benefit from even as a Dharma-Lite practitioner of Vajrayana. The custom of counting our mantra recitations is very interesting. We have the preparatory practices, the ngondro, telling us to do 100,000 or 130,000 of certain mantras and verses. When we do a retreat, an approximation retreat on a Buddha-figure or, as it is sometimes translated, a “retreat to make the mind flexible” with a practice, we need to recite the main mantra 100,000 times for each syllable. For OM MANI PADME HUM this means 600,000 and for Tara’s mantra, a million times. If the mantra is 32 syllables or more, then it is 10,000 times for each syllable.
What is the benefit of keeping count when we are doing these mantras? Is it being very materialistic or not? I think we need to look back at the context in which these practices were recommended by the Buddha. At that time, we were talking mostly about uneducated people. Even in the monastic community, there were fairly simple, ordinary people who might have felt that they hadn’t really accomplished much in their lives. When we have low self-esteem, in a sense, thinking that attaining enlightenment might be impossible and requires an unbelievable amount of work, then if we can recite something or do something 100,000 or a million times, which is unimaginable that we could ever do that, and then when we are able to actually accomplish it, we can see that it is not so difficult.
Even with Vajrasattva, the 100-syllable mantra, if we do 300 a day, we are finished in a year. This is not such a big deal to do 300 a day. We can do it. Like that, it gives a sense of self-confidence. It is very helpful. However, it is not a materialistic thing; we might as well just count to 100,000, which is not going to accomplish very much. Nonetheless, by keeping count and seeing that we can actually accomplish something that, before we ever tried to do it, we thought was just too much – I think that is very helpful.
We find this in physical training as well. I do physical training, weightlifting and stuff like that, and when the trainer says to do some exercise 50 times, I say, “I can’t possibly do it 50 times.” But then he pushes me to do it and I see that, actually, with taking breaks along the way, I actually can do it 50 times. It gives great confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Of course, we could go on an arrogant ego trip in terms of that; however, if we ease off on that, it gives us the strength to go further. Therefore, I think it’s not such a bad idea, this counting of mantras.
Another point, I think, for people who are very nervous and tense, is that it can be very beneficial to have a mantra going on in the background of their minds all day long.
Also, as I have previously mentioned, a thing to keep in mind is to keep things private. If we walk around in public with our mala or rosary mumbling to ourselves, that looks pretty strange. We don’t want to invite criticism or people making fun of us and so on. We can do our practice privately. The mala can be in our purse or pocket. We can have something really small. We don’t need some big, ostentatious mala. There are ways of doing things a little bit more privately.
It is the same thing with the red strings; sometimes people look like Ubangi with the 20 red strings around their necks. And if the strings are really old and look quite ragged and we’re dressed really elegantly with these dirty strings around our necks, this looks pretty weird. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with keeping them in our wallet or pocket. We don’t have to make them so visible. Keep things private and don’t invite obstacles. The more we make a show of what we are doing, the more obstacles come. We have enough internal obstacles. We don’t need external obstacles as well.
Visualization for a Dharma-Lite Level
The next thing that we can do on a Dharma-Lite level is visualization. If we are practicing on a Dharma-Lite level and we are really beginners and we really don’t have the background that would enable us to practice on a more serious level, the best thing is for us to just visualize the Buddha-figure in front of us. In the case of Vajrasattva, it would be on the crown of our heads. It is best to not yet visualize ourselves as the form of the figure. There are many tantric practices, starting with guru-yoga, where we visualize the figure in front of us. This can be Chenrezig, Tara or whoever it might be. It can be very inspirational. We can imagine lights and nectars flowing to us and filling us with all sorts of little figures of the yidams to get qualities of the body, or syllables of the mantra to get qualities of speech, and the seed syllables and insignia to get qualities of the mind. There are tons of variations of this that we can do with any deity.
That is another insight, by the way. All these practices are interchangeable, especially these very basic practices of visualizations of lights coming into us; for instance, they may only vary in what are in the lights and the qualities that they generate in us and so on. They can work with any figure. There are so many different varieties or practices. New practices come along as well, like the termas that were mentioned before, and also language, in terms of whether we do them in Tibetan, a Western language or another Asian language. We really need to ask the advice of the teacher who is transmitting some practice and follow their guidance. It’s hard to give a general formula for this. In any case, these practices are interchangeable, with so many varieties, so there is not just one special way, “my” special way. This tends to get into arrogance and the attitude of mine being better than yours. We don’t need that, not at all.
What does the word yoga mean? It is the same word as the word for “join.” We want to join the qualities of the Buddha as represented by the guru, or represented by the Buddha-figure, with our own qualities. This inspires and uplifts us so that our qualities get heightened to become closer and closer to those of an enlightened being. This is the resultant vehicle after all; therefore, we imagine that we are all-loving, for example. However, if we can’t get along with our parents, the people in our office, or our children, that doesn’t work. We have to actually put loving kindness into practice as best as we can. We need to make our qualities as close as possible to those represented by the Buddha-figure, not just in our imagination but also in our actual daily life.
These visualizations are very helpful for having a graphic representation of what we are trying to do. In other words, if we are trying to generate the four immeasurables, for example – the four positive attitudes of love, compassion, joy and equanimity – we can recite the words over and over again as one thing. However, if we have a figure that has four arms, as does Chenrezig, with the four arms that represent these four immeasurables, then it’s easier to try to put all four together in one state of mind that has them all fit together. In this manner, we are equally loving and compassionate, rejoicing in the positive things of others and wanting them to have not just ordinary happiness but everlasting happiness, and we also develop the equanimity toward everybody, all in one state of mind. Here we have this represented in a visualization.
Remember the word “tantra” also has this connotation of the loom on which we weave together all the different understandings and points of sutra. These multi-armed, multi-faced images are very helpful for that reason. Having one in front of us, inspiring and uplifting us is a very danger-free, or at least minimally dangerous way of practicing tantra on the Dharma-Lite level. If we try to visualize ourselves prematurely as one of these Buddha-figures there is a great danger. It is said quite clearly in the texts that if we don’t have some level of bodhichitta and some level of understanding of voidness, emptiness, then visualizing oneself very concretely as part of a samsaric trip as one of these figures is the perfect cause for being born as a ghost in the form of that Buddha-figure.
That is quite a statement, isn’t it? However, what are we doing? We are not doing this practice of visualizing ourselves with the understanding that this is a method for attaining the Body of a Buddha. We aren’t dedicating it toward our attainment of enlightenment. Therefore, when we build up some sort of positive force, it’s like with our computer. There are two folders, an enlightenment folder and a samsara folder. We have to press “save as” and put the positive force built up from our visualization practice in the enlightenment folder. If we don’t choose that option, the default setting of our internal computer is that it goes into the second folder, the samsara folder. This is a very helpful image to keep in mind. We have to save whatever positive force we build up in the proper folder. If not, it’s just going to build up a cause for rebirth with the samsaric form of this figure, and that would be as a ghost.
It’s very interesting, actually. Look at the phenomenon that goes on in places like Malaysia and Singapore, where there are whole groups of people who are channeling different Buddha-figures such as Laughing Buddha, a form of Maitreya in Chinese Buddhism, and so on. These people somehow go into a trance and people believe the Laughing Buddha or this or that Buddha is speaking through them. It’s such a widespread phenomenon. Witnessing that, it got me to thinking that maybe this was what the texts were warning against, because tantra flourished in these areas many centuries ago. Maybe these are spirits or ghosts that, in some former life, practiced visualizing themselves as this or that Buddha-figure but without proper bodhichitta or some understanding of the emptiness or voidness of what they were doing. They took their visualization very concretely, as in “I really am this figure, solidly and inherently established,” etc., and here is the result.
However, all these Laughing Buddhas and so on that are being channeled, what are they doing? They are giving advice to people, like a psychologist on a street corner giving advice. People come and someone goes into a trance and the spirit speaks to them and helps them with their problems. There was some sort of positive interaction that was going on, which gave more credence to the possibility that this might be what the texts were talking about. They tried to practice tantra with some compassion and love, but it was premature. They didn’t really have the proper preparation and that is a big danger.
This is why I think it is far safer to visualize the figure in front of us when we haven’t yet reached the stage at which, at least on some level, we have bodhichitta, and so that, at least on some level, we are not taking all these visualizations as concrete and solid, thinking, “I really am Tara, or this or that figure.” This is something to take quite seriously, I think.
Another aspect of what we can do as a Dharma-Lite practitioner of tantra, from which we can benefit, is to have a daily practice – indeed, a daily practice as a sutra practitioner as well. We need to do this if we are going to make any progress. We need to develop the discipline to meditate with a commitment and not just meditate when we feel like doing it, or not doing it when we are so desperate and really need it. We need a steady commitment; for example, like we brush our teeth every morning, we do our daily practice every morning. This type of commitment builds up a sense of stability, discipline, responsibility, and perseverance. We stick with it.
There needs to be this armor-like perseverance: “I don’t care how difficult it is, I am just going to do it whether I feel like it or not. I’m going to do it.” It is this type of commitment, with the realization that the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. That is the nature of samsara, so what do we expect? Some days it is going to go well; some days it is going to go terribly. Some days we will have good concentration; some days our minds are going to be wandering all over the place. Don’t get upset about it.
There are the so-called “eight worldly dharmas.” Literally, they are the eight transitory things, the things that change and have a perishable basis. Jigten is the Tibetan word translated as “worldly.” Again, Serkong Rinpoche would say to milk the meaning out of the words. Jig means something that perishes, so it’s transitory, and ten means a basis. Praise and blame, things going well or not going well – these are transitory and go up and down. Don’t get thrown by them; just persevere and continue no matter what. It’s not thinking, “How wonderful I am that things are going well,” or “How terrible I am because things are not going well.” Just do it.
Maintaining a daily meditation practice no matter what provides a tremendous sense of continuity and stability in our lives. No matter how much craziness is going on in our daily lives, this is something steady. There is this stable period of time, however long it might be. It could be five minutes, or it could be a half hour or an hour. It’s not crucial how long it is, as long as it is something that we have committed ourselves to and we maintain no matter what.
Don’t Create a Burden
There is another point of advice that comes from Serkong Rinpoche that I should bring in that is connected to this discussion about commitment. For example, if we are doing a meditation retreat in which, in each session, we need to do a certain number of mantras or whatever it might be, in the first session we should only repeat the mantra three times. This is because the number we repeat in our first session sets the minimum number that we commit ourselves to do every session, every day. That way, even if we are sick, no matter what, we can manage to recite OM MANI PADME HUM, for example, three times. That way we keep our commitment and maintain the continuity of our retreat practice no matter how sick we are. Obviously, if we are in a coma, that is something else.
This is very helpful advice of how to keep continuity. Don’t try to keep continuity of something enormous that is going to be a burden. As the instructions for meditation in general always advise, when we first start to practice meditation, make the sessions short. It should be that we end our session when we would still like to continue. The analogy is like when we are with a friend and the friend leaves, but we would still like to spend more time with the friend, then we will be very happy when the friend comes back. However, if the friend overstays their welcome, we can’t wait until they leave, and we certainly don’t want them to come again. The same thing applies to sitting on our meditation cushion. We need to make our sessions short to begin with, so that we really want to continue, and we want to come back.
Then, gradually we can maintain and extend it; however, if we have that minimum level that we have committed ourselves to, then we can maintain it each day. With all the practices, there are long and shorter versions. Be flexible. Again, Serkong Rinpoche explained that opposite to what we want to think, the longest versions are for the beginners and the short, abbreviated versions are the advanced practices. The reason for that is that if we are familiar with the long practices, then, when we do the short, abbreviated practices, we can fill in all the stuff that is abbreviated there. That’s why we have the abbreviated practices, because eventually we don’t have to recite everything that we are doing because we are so familiar with it that we can just generate it.
We know how many arms we have and what colors and what they are holding, and we don’t have to recite it to remind ourselves. Nevertheless, when we are practicing, have a travel version of what we are doing so that then we can maintain the continuity no matter what. This is the minimal commitment, which is very helpful.
Be flexible. This is so important. One of my close friends, also a close disciple, asked Serkong Rinpoche what to do if he was supposed to be practicing Yamantaka all day long but also had Chenrezig practice as well. Serkong Rinpoche asked “Can’t Yamantaka recite OM MANI PADME HUM?” Yes, he can. “Can Yamantaka sit down?” Yes. Have flexibility. If we are going to work with these Buddha-figures, make it something comfortable and part of life. We are not frozen as a statue in the form of these figures that we are manifesting as. Work with them on a realistic level.
To repeat, daily practice is very helpful and, if we are doing a Dharma-Lite practice, mantra and visualization of a Buddha-figure in front of us are still useful. In this way, try to fill in more and more all the different pieces that we are trying to weave together with this practice. If we look at the sadhanas, they have all the ngondro practices there. If we look at the longer forms, they always have the Vajrasattva section and generation of refuge and bodhichitta and the four immeasurables. They always have reaffirming the vows and mandala offering. Everything is there. It’s not that we just do these practices beforehand and then forget about them.
If the main purpose of these unshared or uncommon preliminaries is to build up positive force and cleanse away some negative force, then we need to maintain continuity of doing that throughout all of our practice. The sadhanas provide this framework for doing that every day. Also, it is helpful to remind ourselves what the vows are. There are various practices that we can do in which we recite the vows every day. This is very helpful; otherwise, we won’t remember.
Transforming Our Lives
Also, always keep in mind the various types of sutra practices. What I always recommend to people as part of daily practice is to read through or recite some of the basic mind training or lojong texts. There is the Eight Verse Mind Training, or the Seven Point Mind Training, or the Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices. These are the basics. Spend some time each day focusing on one verse and try to really think about it in terms of how it applies to your life. This is very important as part of a daily practice because it is very easy to think of our daily practice only as a sadhana. We do it and it doesn’t really relate to our lives.
Even if we do a sadhana on a daily level and it gives us continuity and perseverance and so on, usually it doesn’t really make a big transformation in our lives if we are not already super advanced. However, Dharma is really all about working on ourselves, overcoming our shortcomings and realizing our full potentials. That is what it is all about and doing that in a Mahayana way. We are not just doing it so that we will be free of suffering ourselves but doing it so that our disturbing emotions and our confusion don’t mess up our ability to help others. How can we help others if we get angry with them? How can we help others if we are clinging to them and dependent on them to say, “Thank you?” Again, what are we going to do, wag our tails when they say, “Thank you?”
Then, in addition to tantra, we start to transform ourselves. Another way of working with tantra is on the level of self-image. However, it is not really the power of positive thinking and a self-help type of thing. If we are careful with understanding the reality of what we are visualizing, sadhana practice can be very helpful in terms of gaining some sort of positive image of ourselves. If we are thinking in terms of “Poor me; I can’t really understand something. I can’t really feel anything for this other person,” or anything like that, the tantra method of thinking about these deities can give us confidence. If we are imagining ourselves as these Buddha-figures, it is very helpful as long as we aren’t going into a weird trip of thinking, “I really am Tara,” and so on.
For example, when we are faced with a difficult situation and we are very confused, imagine thinking, “No, I am Manjushri, and I have clarity of mind. I am able to understand.” It could also be Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, thinking, “I am able to feel something positive for others.” In this way, rather than identifying with a negative self-image, there is a positive self-image. However, that can only function if it is based on a correct understanding of voidness. Both the positive and the negative self-images are devoid of being self-established. They arise dependently on causes and conditions, and concepts. We need some understanding of what is going on; otherwise, we identify solidly with the positive self-image just as we had identified with the negative self-image, and we get into problems even with that positive one. We can identify with the positive one, for example, and become extremely arrogant. Understanding voidness is necessary for this shift of a self-image, and tantra can help us with that if we do it properly. That also is a great benefit that we can derive.
The Benefits of Tantra Regarding Shamatha
There are many other benefits of the tantra practice, but maybe they are something we can speak about at another time. Just to mention one aspect of them, when we are focusing on ourselves as a Buddha-figure and focus on this for gaining concentration, we have a far easier and more stable object of focus than focusing on our regular body. Our regular body is changing all the time. Therefore, if we are focusing on our regular body and we have an ache in our leg or an itch, it is very difficult to develop shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. This is because our object of focus is changing; whereas, if we are focusing on this Buddha-figure, it is a so-called “permanent impermanent phenomenon” – there is a technical term for that – and it doesn’t change. It is always the same, and, in each session, we always come back to the same object of focus. If we have a stable object of focus to always come back to, it is easier to develop stable concentration on it. This is one benefit.
Also, a Buddha-figure doesn’t have negative associations with it. When focusing on our ordinary body, we can have all sorts of negative associations with it, like feeling too fat, old, skinny, not pretty enough, or so gorgeous and god’s gift to the world, or whatever it might be. There are these disturbing associations with our ordinary body, but we don’t have that with a Buddha-figure. It is sort of clean in that sense. This also makes it an object that is more conducive for single-minded concentration.
There are many benefits that are elaborated in the texts about how using these Buddha-figures for gaining concentration are so beneficial, both in sutra practice and in tantra. There is a huge list of objects for developing shamatha, the stilled and settled state of mind. Different types of objects are delineated according to what the dominating disturbing emotion might be. Focusing on the breath, for example, is indicated by Kamalashila, a great Indian master, for those who have a great deal of mental wandering. Then, we focus on the breath because it’s there all the time and it’s steady. That’s fine; however, there are many other objects that we can use for developing this focus.
With the sutra method, what is most commonly recommended is focusing on a Buddha in front of us. What is the point of focusing on a Buddha? It’s not just that it’s pretty and all that, but that it’s the object of refuge. We keep in mind all the qualities of a Buddha and that this is the direction that we want to go in, so we entrust ourselves to the Buddha to guide us there. A visualized Buddha also represents the enlightenment that we want to achieve with bodhichitta. Visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure in tantra also represents the state that we want to achieve.
Transformation in Anuttarayoga Tantra
We have spoken about practicing tantra as Dharma-Lite practitioners, practitioners who do not yet understand and believe in rebirth. But Real Thing Dharma, especially in terms of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, is all about rebirth – more specifically, transforming the process of death, bardo and rebirth. During that process, the clear-light mind, the subtlest level of mind, manifests naturally at the time of death. However, at death we don’t have any understanding of voidness with that clear-light mind, and so all the instincts from our karma and disturbing emotions take over and then – wham – we are in the bardo, and our mental continuum connects with our next rebirth.
What we want to do in anuttarayoga practice is transform that process in meditation so that, in meditation, we access this subtlest level of mind and use it to focus non-conceptually on voidness. This level of mind is naturally non-conceptual. Then, instead of emerging from it in the subtle appearance of a bardo being and then a grosser appearance of an ordinary rebirth, as we would with ordinary death, we manifest on the final stages of the path in the subtle appearances of a Sambhogakaya and the grosser appearances of a Nirmanakaya.
Anuttarayoga tantra has several incredibly sophisticated methods for being able to gain access to the subtlest level of mind in meditation. On the initial stages of its practice, the generation stage, we imagine the same stages of our mind becoming more and more subtle and accessing that subtlest level as we are actually able to do with complete stage practices. Then, with that subtlest level, we focus on voidness or emptiness, which is the opponent for getting rid of these obscurations so that we don’t activate the karmic tendencies and all the habits of our disturbing emotions and ignorance. We want to get rid of and not activate them. Instead, we want to activate the positive Buddha-nature factors, so that at least we imagine that we emerge from this clear-light level and manifest in a Buddha-figure form. Eventually, when we can really do this and not just imagine it, we manifest in the Form Bodies of a Buddha.
Therefore, if we are going to practice the highest level of tantra, anuttarayoga, where we have Vajravarahi, Dorje Palmo, Vajrayogini, Chakrasamvara, all the various anuttarayoga deities, if we don’t think in terms of rebirth, what would we actually be doing? It doesn’t make any sense to try to purify death, bardo and rebirth if we don’t believe in rebirth. Confident belief in rebirth is absolutely essential at that stage.
However, if we are not there yet, as we have discussed, we can still gain great benefit from recitation of mantras, on a provisional level, to protect our mind, like a type of mental judo, to stop worries and thoughts going through our heads. On the deepest level, as it says in the Heart Sutra, the mantra of prajnaparamita, the far-reaching attitude of the understanding of emptiness held with bodhichitta, is the deepest and most powerful mantra, the one that surpasses all, as it says in that sutra. We can recite the prajnaparamita mantra, OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA, while also visualizing a Buddha in front of us to gain inspiration and use it for helping us to integrate the various things that its form represents. In addition, we can try to have a daily practice in which we develop some sort of stability, a sense of responsibility and commitment to the path of what we are doing.
Let’s reflect on all this for a moment. How, if we are already involved in tantra practice or if we are contemplating getting involved with tantra practice, what are we actually going to be doing with it? Is it going to be just a form of spiritual hobby or an escape into Buddhist Disneyland? What are we actually doing? There are lectures on the website about the difference between imagining that we are a Buddha-figure and a crazy person thinking that they are Mickey Mouse. “Great; now I am Mickey Mouse leading everyone to Disneyland.” This is completely crazy. “Now I am the good Red Fairy, Vajrayogini, leading everybody to Dakini Land.” Is that how we are practicing? What is going on? What level are we doing this at? Is it a child’s game, a video game, or is it something that makes sense to us? Asking these types of questions is very helpful.
[Pause for contemplation]
For our website, we have been interviewing various lamas and Buddhist teachers asking different questions and posting them on the website and YouTube. One of the questions that we have been asking a few teachers is if they could recommend just one meditation for Westerners, what they would recommend. We asked Ringu Tulku, and he said that a meditation to do each day is to reflect on “What am I doing with my life?” He said this would be very helpful. “What am I doing? Where am I going?”
The other thing that we have asked was what is the most beneficial piece of advice that they have received from their teachers. We asked this of Tenzin Palmo, probably one of the most realized Western practitioners. She spent twelve years in solitary retreat in a cave in Lahaul, India. She said that the advice that she received from her teacher, from one of the yogis from her monastery, was that, three times each hour, to stop and become mindful of what is going on in our mind. What is the state of our mind in terms of emotions and everything going on? Thich Nhat Hanh has a mindfulness bell and when it rings, everyone needs to examine what is going on in their minds. Such practice is very helpful.