Clarification of Various Crucial Aspects of Tantra

Review

Tantra practice is a full practice that entails putting together a tremendous number of things and is something that we approach slowly and gradually. We can’t expect at the beginning to be able to do it in a full way; obviously not. Therefore, whether we are practicing in a Dharma-Lite fashion or in a Real-Thing fashion, we need to be patient with ourselves. As Sakya Pandita pointed out, the main basis for successful tantra practice is keeping the vows and ethical discipline. We need the three higher trainings: ethical self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness of the correct view of voidness, not only in sutra but also in tantra. These, with the force of renunciation and bodhichitta supplemented by the six far-reaching attitudes or paramitas, are what are going to bring us to our goal, whether in a sutra way or a combined sutra and tantra way. 

Mahayana

We shouldn’t think of Vajrayana as being a separate vehicle different from Mahayana. It is very misinformed to think like that. Within Mahayana, we have sutra and tantra paths, but both are equally Mahayana practices, as is dzogchen, which is also not something separate. It is definitely a Mahayana practice intended to bring us to enlightenment and intended for the benefit of all beings. This is what makes it a Mahayana practice. Don’t belittle Mahayana as something separate and not being something as advanced as Vajrayana or Dzogchen.

Tantra is considered as a more efficient, speedier path than sutra and is well-known as such. This needs to be understood properly. Otherwise, we look at tantra as a bargain and think we get off cheaply with it because we can attain enlightenment quickly with it. This is especially so when we hear that it is an easy path. This is misleading; tantra is not at all easy. It is faster in general than sutra because, with it, we are working on methods that are similar to the result we wish to attain.

We want to achieve the body and mind of a Buddha – speech is part of body. The body and mind of a Buddha are simultaneous, they always come inseparably together. When we practice in a sutra way, it isn’t possible to have the causes for a body and the causes for a mind simultaneously in one moment of mental activity. The reason for this is that our mental activity can only take an object or engage with an object in one way at a time. Tantra, however, provides a method to practice causes for attaining both simultaneously. 

Non-Conceptual Cognition of Voidness: The Cause for the Mind of a Buddha

Voidness, or emptiness, is the total absence of an impossible way of existing. We project and believe in some impossible way of existing, but it doesn’t correspond to reality. Therefore, what is absent is an impossible mode of existence – or, more precisely, an invalid, impossible method for establishing of the existence of something: a mode of existence that corresponds to the mode of appearance that we are projecting out of ignorance.

A simple example is when we think, “I am the center of the universe, the most important one, and I should always have my way, and everybody should pay attention to me.” If we think that we exist in that way and that simply thinking like that makes it so, that doesn’t correspond to reality. A “me” who is the center of the universe and the most important one is totally absent. It never existed and can’t possibly exist, no matter how much we think it is true. Closing our eyes and experiencing everything disappearing and there being just “me” left doesn’t establish or prove that we are the center of the universe, even though it seems like that. This way of establishing being the center of the universe doesn’t work. It is false. 

There are many levels of impossible ways of establishing that things exist − the impossible ways of existing, for short − that we project. We have to go deeper and deeper and deeper. When we focus on voidness, we are focusing on there being no such thing as these impossible ways of existing. Non-conceptual cognition of that voidness removes all the obscurations from our mind, so that our mind becomes the mind of a Buddha. 

Bodhichitta: The Cause for the Body of a Buddha

The cause for a Form Body of a Buddha is bodhichitta. Bodhichitta focuses on our own individual enlightenment that hasn’t happened yet, and does so with the intention to attain it, supported by love and compassion. This is not just the intention to attain it but also the intention to benefit everybody. This and cognition of voidness are two quite different ways of focusing on an object. One focuses on there being no such thing, while the other focuses on what we wish to attain to benefit all beings. In one moment of mental activity, we can’t put the two together simultaneously. Nevertheless, one can be the force behind the other and they can support each other and that is how it works in sutra. 

Putting the Two Causes Together in One Moment of Mind

In tantra, we of course still have bodhichitta, and we still have the understanding of voidness. But, here, while our mind has total absorption on voidness, we are aware that we also have a body. It isn’t that our body appears in the meditation; however, in that one mind focusing on voidness, we are aware that there is a body there. This is usually described as the mind that understands voidness appears as the deity.” 

We follow our total absorption meditation with what is misleadingly often translated as “post-meditation.” Literally, it means “subsequent attainment.” What do we attain after total absorption on voidness? We still have complete concentration, and we are still meditating; however, now, rather than focusing on the absence of the impossible way of existing, we are focusing on “illusion-like voidness,” as it is called. Our body appears as a yidam, but because we have understood voidness, we realize that the way in which it appears is like an illusion. The way in which it appears to exist doesn’t correspond to reality, but we aren’t fooled by it. That is the subsequent realization, the subsequent attainment. Of course, we could maintain that outside of meditation, but the main focus takes place in meditation. 

Practicing these two phases of meditation like that gets us closer to the result by having causes for the body and mind of a Buddha simultaneously in one moment of manifest mental activity. That is what makes tantra speedier.

Tantric Presentations Regarding Timetables for Attaining Enlightenment

It is said in one of the tantras – I couldn’t find the reference, but it is repeated quite often – that if we keep our tantric vows purely, even with no meditation – which I believe means without doing intensive generation and complete stage practice – we will attain enlightenment in seven to fourteen lifetimes. That is actually a pretty strong statement, so we have to analyze and think about what it actually means. 

Look at the tantric vows and what we would have to do purely for all those lifetimes. It means we have to not give up bodhichitta, the Real-Thing bodhichitta, and we have to meditate on voidness six times a day. Attaining enlightenment by purely keeping these vows obviously does not mean attaining it by not meditating on bodhichitta and voidness. This underlies the importance of keeping the vows. I think this is one of the bases for the Sakya Pandita to say that without the vows there is no initiation and there is no tantra. 

We find in another presentation that by practicing anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, we can attain enlightenment in as little as three years and three phases of the moon. A phase of the moon is a fortnight, fifteen days. Where does that come from? It comes from the Kalachakra Tantra. Within that tantra, there is a very elaborate explanation of the breaths. The breath shifts from going primarily in through one nostril and out the other nostril twelve times a day. There are twelve shifts similar to there being the twelve signs of the zodiac and the twelve months of the year. There are all these parallels in the Kalachakra teachings; we can easily become seduced by the beauty of the symmetry. 

As the breath shifts from one nostril to another nostril twelve times a day, there is a certain number of breaths called “deep awareness breaths” that enter into the central channel. This is uniquely explained in Kalachakra. There are fifty-six and a quarter breaths that enter into the central channel each time the breath shifts primarily coming in from one nostril to the other. If we observe the breath, we can discover that it is true that the breath does primarily go through one nostril and not through  both absolutely equally. However, at the point when it does go absolutely equally between the two, it goes into the central channel. 

Kalachakra frequently mentions the number 21,600 and that has to do with a certain measurement in astronomy and astrology and also the number of breaths in a day. We also need to have 21,600 moments of focus on voidness with clear light non-conceptual cognition with unchanging bliss to attain enlightenment. 

If we were to calculate how many of these deep awareness breaths go into the central channel during a 100-year lifetime, where each year has 360 days, and divide that by 21,600 breaths per day, then the number of days of consecutive deep awareness breaths it would take to make up that number is the number of days in three years and three phases of the moon. Because we need to get all these deep awareness breaths in meditation into the central channel to attain enlightenment, then, it is said that enlightenment can be gained in three years and three phases of the moon. That is where the number derives from. 

It is a little bit misleading, then, to have the great hope that after doing a three-year retreat, we are going to become enlightened. Maybe, but don’t count on it.

There is another presentation that appears very often in dzogchen texts as well, that there are “those for whom it happens all at once.” We might think that we are one of those persons for whom it will happen all at once. However, there is such a tiny number of beings who have built up the unbelievable amount of positive force in previous lives for it to happen all at once, that it is highly unlikely that we are one of them. 

Also, we are not talking, here, about coming off the street never having heard anything about Buddhism, never having done any practice and we sit down and, voila, it happens all at once: we are enlightened. The dzogchen texts are referring to going all at once from the attainment of a seeing pathway of mind, the path of seeing, all the way to enlightenment, through the ten bhumis. Nevertheless, for the vast majority of practitioners, once they have non-conceptual cognition of voidness and have accessed rigpa and made that manifest, they still need to progress gradually through the bhumis. There are only a tiny number for whom all obscurations fall away at once. 

Words of Advice

It’s very important, when practicing tantra, to have a realistic attitude toward it. One of the most helpful pieces of advice in the meditation texts is to meditate without any expectations, without any hopes or disappointments. If we have no expectations, we won’t have any disappointments.  That is very helpful in life as well, especially when dealing with other people. Don’t expect anything, either from them or from life in general. If things go well, that is wonderful, and we rejoice. But remember the eight worldly dharmas and don’t go overboard, thinking, “How fantastic!” And if things don’t go well and we get all depressed, that doesn’t help; it’s an obstacle. 

As the young Serkong Rinpoche says, the catchphrase that he uses all the time, is that whatever happens, it is “nothing special.” This is not the attitude that nothing matters, but one where we simply don’t make a big deal out of anything. We just practice steadily with commitment, trying the best we can to keep the vows. Slowly, slowly, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says; don’t expect progress to be so quick. If we want to evaluate, look at a five-year period and compare how we have dealt with difficult situations in life then and now. That is the test. We have made progress if we are better able to deal with challenges that come up in life without getting so upset but having a little bit more patience and wisdom. Do we get along better with people, especially difficult people? Then, we have made some progress. 

That is what it is all about, isn’t it? Dharma practice is to work on ourselves and to try to minimize and eventually get rid of our shortcomings and to realize more and more of our potentials. Sutra is helpful for this, and a combination of sutra and tantra is even more effective. But always keep it a Mahayana practice for benefitting everyone. Now for some final questions.

Where Does Ngondro Fit In?

Thank you for a very elaborate overview of tantra and the inspiring teachings. I am left with a question about when you talked about the importance for being ready for the Vajrayana path. Where do you place the ngondro in this big picture? Is it on the sutra path or is it on the Vajrayana path?

As I explained in the beginning, there are the shared ngondro preparatory practices, which are completely sutra. These are the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma, plus refuge, renunciation, bodhichitta and the paramitas. There are also the unshared ones: prostrations, Vajrasattva, mandala offerings and guru-yoga. I should also mention that although those are the standard four that we find in some traditions, there are more that can be done. There are offerings of 100,000 water bowls, 100,000 clay tablets, and many other ngondro practices that can be done. 100,000 is not a set figure. In some traditions, it’s 110,000, some 108,000, and some 130,000. There’s nothing special about a particular number. Whatever is in our own lineage, we do. 

There can also be many other points about ngondro. There is the standard ngondro and specific ngondros that your personal teacher gives to you. Those could be quite different. I always saw the running around getting visas for Serkong Rinpoche and his attendants with different passports, writing letters, making arrangements for all the lecturing and travel, etc., and translating for him as part of my ngondro. 

I think that we can look at any sort of repetitive Dharma activity as a ngondro, in that it is building up positive force and weakening negative force of not wanting to, for example, go to the embassy and drive all the way to Delhi to deal with bureaucracy. I could have said that I didn’t want to do that. We can do ngondro as an event, all at once, or we can do each part when it fits in and is convenient. We can do it as an all-day affair, or we can do one session in the morning and one session at night or only one session a day. The important thing is continuity. Don’t break the continuity.

Thus, we can see there are many ways of doing ngondro, and whether we call it part of sutra or part of tantra can be debated. However, what can’t be debated is that the shared common ngondro comes before the unshared one. If we don’t know what refuge is and have some feeling of refuge, reciting 100,000 times the words, “I take refuge in the Buddha. Dharma and Sangha,” when they mean nothing to us, isn’t going to have much effect. We need the shared ones first. 

We can have an initiation before we finish them. In fact, most of the time that is what happens. Then, we just keep the basic commitment from the initiation. It might be to recite one mala, 108 times of OM MANI PADME HUM. Fine, then do that. However, we need to make more and more preparation to do a more sophisticated practice.

Initiations and Close Connections

I am thinking about yidams and the initiations. They aren’t archetypes; they are clearly more than archetypes. When there is a transmission, something is transmitted. Also, people can have closeness to certain yidams or closeness to a teacher when they come. What is it that crosses from lifetimes to make that happen? It seems that it should be easy to understand but what is it that crosses? It is possible that we could meditate on a yidam and get a different result, but it seems that it is pointing somewhere, something that is transmitted.

That is a very good question. First, what it is not. A transmission is not like throwing a football to you. Here is the transmission and then I throw it to you, and you catch it. It certainly isn’t something concrete like that. To understand a transmission, we need to understand dependent arising and voidness. Something will arise dependently on many factors, many causes and conditions. From past lives or past experiences or whatever, we have had a series of interactions with a specific teacher or yidam practice, for instance. A tendency or closeness with it arises, then, as an imputation phenomenon on the basis of those experiences, like an unconscious memory of them.

What is a memory of something? Something happened and then we remember something that conceptually represents what happened. That is a memory. Likewise, the feeling of closeness or connection with something is based on a previous connection and maybe not just once. Therefore, there are circumstances like the initiation or circumstances like going to India or a Buddhist center where we meet some teacher or see a painting of some yidam, and a feeling of closeness automatically arises. It is not that there is a connection sitting inside our mental continuum as some findable “thing,” waiting to pop out, and now here it is. It’s not something like that. The feeling of closeness arises dependently on all the causes and conditions. There is nothing solid that is there; nevertheless, it functions.

An easy way to start to become familiar with dependent arising is to consider this chair, for insatnce. This chair is made of atoms and the atoms are made of sub-particles and there are energy fields and stuff like that. It is the same thing with our body. It is mostly empty space. Nevertheless – this is the important word – nevertheless, we don’t fall through a chair when we sit on it. It is the “nevertheless factor” that, despite the chair not being solid, concrete and findable, it functions. It is the same thing with a transmission or a closeness. It functions. There is nothing being thrown to you. There is no “me” catching it and no teacher throwing it either.

Confusing Archetypes with Yidams

Thank you for the teachings. They have been fantastic and there is much to digest. Buddhism has become very popular among psychologists generally and there has been a comparison between yidams and Jungian archetypes. What do you think about that?  

According to Jung, the archetypes are part of the collective unconsciousness. There is no concept of a collective unconscious in Buddhism. It’s not that there is one big nose in the sky, and we are all part of that big nose. We all have individual noses. Similarly, there is not one collective mind, and we are all part of that. That is not Buddhism. Regarding the archetypes, there are certain myths and certain things that are found in common in many societies; however, these archetypes are also of the evil witch and all these sorts of images that we find in mythology. We don’t have the yidam of the evil witch, the wise old woman, the wise old man, and so on. 

As I was saying, the yidams are specific methods to integrate, as an infographic, all the different teachings that help others along the path to attain the Form Body of a Buddha and to further help others. Archetypes are not like that. The purposes of the two are quite different. 

Also, each yidam represents all of enlightenment, plus each also embodies a more specific aspect of enlightenment. For example, there is Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, for compassion, or Manjushri for wisdom and clarity of mind. Nonetheless, those are quite different from archetypes, since all yidams, even forceful ones, embody positive qualities for helping others; whereas there are some archetypes that embody negative qualities. Therefore, they are quite different from yidams. Also, yidams cannot be found self-established and inherent in our minds, whereas archetypes supposedly are.

I haven’t been close to Jungian psychologists, but the term “archetype” is sometimes used by them in connection with Buddhism.

Yes, that is so. Jung had a little bit of contact with Buddhism, but he also misunderstood a lot – for instance, the imagery in tantra of a couple. If we look at the words for the couple, “yab-yum,” those are the words for father and mother and not the words for male and female. Just as we need a father and mother to give birth to a child, likewise, we need method and wisdom to give rise to Buddhahood. This is the correct symbolism, but he took it as representing the masculine and feminine principle and that we need to unite them and discover one or the other within ourselves. That is not Buddhism. Buddhism certainly is not talking about a feminine or masculine principle. 

This doesn’t mean that such principles are unimportant or unhelpful to address. They are, but Buddhism doesn’t talk about them, and we shouldn’t think that it does. Keep things clear. There are many different forms of psychology, and many things from them are very useful. However, don’t throw them into Buddhism and consider them Buddhist teachings. And don’t think that Buddhism is only another form of psychology or only meditation. To do that reduces and short-changes it. Buddhism is much more.

Are Yidams Merely Anthropomorphized Good Qualities?

I’ve had a hard time getting into Vajrayana or deity practice and the way that I’ve understood it has been that, to develop qualities such as compassion and wisdom, abstract qualities, these qualities have been anthropomorphized into a deity on which we can project or see those qualities. It is a method for seeing, both outside and inside ourselves, how to develop these qualities through imbuing a yidam with these qualities.  

As I’ve said, yidams can be looked at as a form of infographics, graphical representations that convey information. For example, four arms convey the information of the four immeasurables; four faces, the four Bodies of a Buddha; and six arms, the six paramitas, the six far-reaching attitudes. They are a way of conveying information that makes it easier to keep all the points in mind at once. This is not quite the same as anthropomorphizing God the creator as an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne. There is a difference between God as an old man with a white beard on a throne and a yidam. We need to think about what the differences are. Also, we need to bear in mind that a yidam is not a personal god that we are going to worship. It’s not that we are going to worship Chenrezig or Tara as in, “Tara, Tara, save me.” It is not Saint Tara. It is different.

The Correct Understanding and Motivation for Ngondro Practice

Some people are fascinated with Vajrayana – for instance, people in the older generation who have read all those early books about Tibet, Alexandra David Neel and so on.

The hippie generation.

Exactly. I think that there is a tendency there to see Tibetan Buddhism as something magical. However, also I sense that there is some reluctance among some practitioners to embrace Vajrayana out of, for example, misunderstanding about the yidams or the vows to be taken. We have to develop a personal relation with the teacher and maybe it’s like losing personal freedom. There is the big mountain called ngondro that we are supposed to climb after doing a little bit of meditation and stuff. Some people want to bypass that, I think, with Vajrayana. Dzogchen and mahamudra sound very nice because we just need to relax into the pure state of the mind. That sounds nice. However, sometimes I think it feeds a little bit into our laziness. Could you give some advice to us as organizers as to how we should introduce Vajrayana into the curriculum? How should we present it? How long do we wait? What is the best way to open people up to the possibility of practicing Vajrayana?

As I’ve said, it is potentially quite dangerous to get involved with tantra prematurely. People can go on all sorts of weird trips and to the extreme of even schizophrenia, let alone being reborn as a ghost and stuff like that. We don’t need to speak about it on that level, but there is the danger of people really go off into some fantasy world and think that they really are this or that yidam. Therefore, I think that the main emphasis should always be on the basic teachings, lojong mind training, and these types of practice. 

Don’t present ngondro as having to pay your dues in order to join the club. Rather, as I was saying, we have such an unbelievable habit of thinking and acting negatively in a disturbed way that we need, by repetition, to build up something positive, some positive force. Otherwise, ordinarily, the negative will come up. That is why we need to repeat things so many times. It is like forging new neural pathways. 

If people understand why they are doing a ngondro, they will be happier to undertake one. This is actually the standard presentation in all the Buddhist texts for undertaking anything in the Dharma. Look at Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, by Shantideva. What is the first chapter? It is the benefits of bodhichitta. First, we need to receive an explanation of the benefits of bodhichitta and then we will become motivated to actually try to generate it. Likewise, if people understand the benefits and get the proper preparation for it, then they are happy to do the ngondro. Otherwise, the attitude is: “I can’t wait until it’s over and I get to the good stuff.” I think this is very important.

Additionally, dzogchen, as His Holiness says, is presented so often in the form of Buddhist propaganda. It is quite clear from Longchenpa and from my own Nyingma teacher, the previous Dudjom Rinpoche, that mahayoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga or Dzogchen each are complete practices that contain each other. We can perhaps access rigpa, but it’s not going to manifest the form of a Buddha Body unless we have previously done a mahayoga practice with its emphasis on the generation stage. If we haven’t been visualizing ourselves as a Buddha figure, why should rigpa manifest as the appearance of a Buddha? If we haven’t greased the pathways of the central channel with tsa-lung practice with the channels and energy-winds in anuyoga, dissolution of our gross levels of mind and wind isn’t going to happen all by itself. The pathways need to be greased so that when we focus on rigpa, automatically the gross levels of mind and energy-winds will dissolve. 

Therefore, the difference between mahayoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga is just a matter of what they emphasize. We can’t do without the generation stage to have the cause for a Form Body of a Buddha, or without tsa-lung practice in order to have the blissful mind of a Buddha, or dzogchen practice to get to rigpa.

The dzogchen method is not just to relax and it all happens at once and, like that, we are already a Buddha. The method needs to be understood correctly, because it is so easy for it to be misunderstood. People might look to dzogchen as a cheap bargain. Therefore, if it is presented in a proper way, then it’s fantastic. Real-Thing dzogchen is certainly not for beginners. 

That is why keeping secrecy is so important. Dzogchen is private and shouldn’t be broadcast and advertised. Once, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked about pure visions and termas. He was asked if there will be more in the future. His Holiness said, “Yes, there will be more.” Why? It’s because when practices become too widespread and too publicly known so that they no longer have a sense of sacredness – when there are Kalachakra t-shirts and ashtrays – when people are no longer having any respect for it, at that point, in the Buddhist way of expressing it, Vajradhara will reveal another pure vision. 

This is important to keep in mind, that things should be kept private. This is something that has really been abused by us Westerners. At least in our own practice, don’t make a big show of it. It has to be sacred to us and we should respect it. We don’t want other people asking what we are doing and why we are doing that, picking up the vajra or the bell and giving them to the baby to play with. We don’t want that.

When to Study Tantra Theory?

Thank you. In Vajrayana there are so many things that I don’t really understand. It is especially so when it comes to the channels and the winds. My understanding is poor but maybe I haven’t tried to understand it. Presently, I am doing the ngondro, taking a long time but I am about halfway. My question is whether it is useful at this stage to try to dive into the theory to try to understand tantra more deeply or do you recommend that it be a more gradual process as I go along?

Everything depends on the individual person. Some people have a great capacity to study many things and other people get confused. It really has to be individually decided about our capacity and what will be of help. We can consult a teacher, but the teacher might not know us personally. Don’t expect that the teacher is an omniscient Buddha. Seeing the teacher as a Buddha is never meant to be taken literally. If we look at the qualifications of a teacher, never anywhere is the qualification that the teacher actually needs to be an enlightened being. That is not there. As I say, if the teacher is an enlightened being, omniscient, then the teacher should know the telephone number of every being on the planet. Obviously, it is not meant literally.

You can consult the teacher but also use your own discriminating awareness. Know yourself and your capacity. Are you getting confused and is it too much? Ultimately, if you want to benefit all beings, you have to know everything. “There isn’t anything that a bodhisattva doesn’t train in.” This is a very famous line. 

One of the prerequisites for receiving a tantric initiation is that we should have faith in the tantra method. Blind faith is never called for in Buddhism. Faith, here, is confident belief based on knowledge and reason. To gain that confidence, we need to have received a correct explanation of the tantra method and we need to have understood it. The method needs to make sense to us and to be valid. If it doesn’t make sense, then after a while we might give it up as being crazy. 

The basic theory, then, is very important to know before we get involved with tantra. Then, we can have some confidence in it. We don’t have to become great scholars but just have a general idea of what is involved so that we don’t have weird superstitious projections that tantra is some magic trick or something like that.

Benefitting Ourselves and Others

You said that the Form Bodies fulfill the purposes of others and that the Dharmakaya fulfils the purpose of oneself. Could you elaborate a little bit more about that?

Why would a Buddha appear? Buddhas only appear to others in order to help them. Therefore, any appearance that a Buddha manifest in – and bear in mind, a Buddha can appear in any form, as in “may I be a bridge” or whatever, as we have in all these prayers – a Buddha does so to help others. These are the Form Bodies. There is a special kind of Form Body to help arya bodhisattvas, the Sambhogakaya, and different types of emanations of that, Nirmanakayas, to benefit other types of beings. Form Bodies benefit others by being such things as a bridge, a bodhisattva or these yidams serving as a method of practice.

Now, what is a Buddha’s own purpose? It is to have an omniscient mind – a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya – with the full set of true stoppings on it of all obscurations, both the emotional ones preventing liberation and the cognitive ones preventing omniscience. 

There are many different explanations of the other aspect of Dharmakaya, the Essential Nature Body, the Svabhavakaya, but one of them is that it is the voidness of the mind of a Buddha and the true stoppings on that mind. When the two sets of obscurations are gone forever, it fulfills the Buddha’s own purpose to attain enlightenment, to become an enlightened being to help others. 

Svabhavakaya can also be explained as the inseparability of all the other Buddha Bodies, and this also accomplishes a Buddha’s own purposes. Since a Buddha’s own purpose is to benefit all beings, that can only be done by having Form Bodies and a Dharmakaya simultaneously and inseparable from each other.  

You also said that visualizing ourselves in these yidam forms, the purpose of it is to benefit others. Is this by weaving things together and so on?

Yes, and also they benefit others by providing a method of practice closer to the result they wish to attain, a Form Body simultaneous with a Dharmakaya. 

How Does Visualizing Ourselves as a Yidam Benefit Others?

Is this method visualizing the yidams? They are a symbol of the Kaya forms, aren’t they? I am confused by this. Maybe you can clarify. You started by asking the question why we would want to visualize ourselves like this and I got the impression that the motivation should be to be able to benefit others. How does visualizing ourselves in these forms benefit others?

First of all, in terms of Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, in tantra, Sambhogakaya is identified with the enlightening speech of a Buddha. The Nirmanakaya is identified with the enlightening physical body of a Buddha. Therefore, we incorporate both of them here with the visualization of the yidam and with the mantra. 

How do we benefit others? We can do that firstly in meditation where we can imagine that we are in these forms helping others, but then we need to actually work to help benefit others. If, for instance, someone comes to us with a difficult problem and explains it to us, if we think of ourselves in our ordinary form as our ordinary self, we might not feel anything and don’t want to be bothered. Or we might feel that their problem is too difficult or that we really don’t understand it and so on. 

If we dissolve that negative, ordinary image of ourselves with our understanding of voidness, we realize that it doesn’t correspond to reality and has arisen due to many causes and conditions, laziness or whatever, but is not something inherent and self-established inside us, solid and forever. We can dissolve this negative self-image – ideally, instantly – and imagine ourselves arising instead as Chenrezig – we do have compassion. Or we arise as Manjushri – we do have the clarity of mind to understand their problem. Reminding ourselves of being these yidams and, while maintaining mindfulness of this, actually helping someone, we have a much more stable basis for helping. We are not helping merely on the basis of not really feeling like it but doing so because it’s our duty to be a good Buddhist. 

This is how we apply yidam practice in daily life, which is where it counts, actually. Of course, in meditation, we imagine that lights go out and it benefits all beings and things like that, but that is a rehearsal of what we actually want to do. We’re not talking about performing some magic trick, where we meet a suffering person and simply imagine lights going out to them, but we don’t actually do anything if we are able. We don’t just sit there with a big smile or something like that. We have to be active. But, of course, there are people and animals we are unable to actually help, so we shouldn’t dismiss this practice of imagining lights going out to them and removing their suffering. But we need to do that with pure compassion and the prayer to eventually actually be able to alleviate their suffering.

Yidam practice in daily life helps us to access the good qualities that we have the potentials for and gives us the courage to actually use them. For instance, just from my own experience, if I don’t understand something I am translating or if I’m trying to figure out how to express something clearly, I stop and do a lot of Manjushri mantra recitation with various visualizations. It helps very much when I want to have clarity of mind and not just identify with the confusion about what I don’t understand and the feeling that I will never figure it out. Doing so is very uplifting. “There is clarity of mind; I want to have clarity of mind: I have clarity of mind.The whole attitude has changed and usually we are better able to understand.

It is the same thing with compassion in a difficult situation in the family or at work. We can think it is horrible and get discouraged. But if we imagine Chenrezig and recite the mantra OM MANI PADME HUM and think of compassion, we become filled with inspiration. We start to feel something, and then we can develop a more compassionate feeling toward the situation and the people in that situation. It can be used very effectively.

Lojong and Mind Training

My question is about approaching our fellow members in the community and how to learn from each other. We can learn from them but also confuse each other. Can you say something about this from your personal experience and knowledge, how to learn from our aspiring to be noble Sangha?

Look to the lojong, the mind training teachings. It is a perfect instruction of how to do that. If someone puts us down and insults us, we see them as our teacher of patience and so on. There are all these verses, both in the Eight Verse Mind Training and in Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices. The information that others in the community give you might be completely crazy. That is not what you are learning from them. You have to ascertain if a person is a valid source of information or not. If they aren’t a valid source of information, don’t just believe what they say, but check it out. Even if what they say is wrong, they can still be a wonderful teacher of not only patience but also of the necessity to analyze everything ourselves.

As the Dharma says, everybody can be our teacher. We can learn from the dog. The dog, no matter where it is, can lie down and go to sleep. A dog isn’t fussy and doesn’t need something special. No matter how much we yell at the dog, the dog still loves us and follows us and so on. The dog is loyal. A dog can teach us a lot. 

Like this, as we hear in the instructions of a healthy relation with a spiritual teacher, we need focus on the good qualities of someone and not the bad qualities. Complaining and criticizing about someone’s bad qualities will only depress us and has no benefit at all. It doesn’t mean that we deny them, but we just don’t focus on them. Seeing the positive qualities of others can inspire us to develop them ourselves. If we look closely, everybody has some positive qualities, and that is what we should focus on.

That brings our time together to a close. Thank you very much for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you. If there is anything useful, as His Holiness always says, you are welcome to pursue it further and if not, then forget about it.

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