Compassion, Refuge and Dharma Protectors in Tantra Practice

I think it is important not to cover too much material at one time but to really chew on what we have been discussing and clear up any questions that you might have related to it.

Visualizing Ourselves as a Buddha-Figure without Bodhichitta

You mentioned something about not doing a yidam practice correctly, that you might end up being reborn as a ghost. What would cause that? It is recommended not only to generate oneself as the yidam but also all others. I guess that would reduce pride or clinging. I thought maybe that could happen if we don’t do the dissolution stages. Can you tell me something about what prevents that result that you warned against?

What prevents this is having bodhichitta and a proper dedication. We need to dedicate the positive force of the practice to attain enlightenment. This is said over and over again in the Seven Point Mind Training; in the beginning and at the end, we set the intention at the beginning that we are doing this practice as a cause for attaining enlightenment to be able to benefit all beings and, at the end, we dedicate the positive force built up toward that goal. If done sincerely and with meaning, this will prevent that positive force from automatically building up positive karma to improve our samsaric situation, but as ghost in the form of the Buddha-figure. Bodhichitta is the critical factor involved here. 

Tantra Reinforces What Is First Practiced with Sutra

What if we are doing Chenrezig practice that is, in itself, supposed to develop bodhichitta or at least compassion?

That’s an interesting point; is Chenrezig practice itself intended to help us go from ground zero, having no compassion, all the way to developing bodhichitta, or is it a practice to enhance and make stronger the compassion and bodhichitta that we have worked on with the sutra methods? As a translator, I am very much involved with language; if we look at the tense of the verb usually translated as “generate” as in “generate bodhichitta,” it doesn’t mean generate something from nothing. This would be a different tense. It is causative and means to strengthen, reinforce and enhance, so to generate something again so as to cause it to grow further. 

It’s the same thing with the preliminary practices, ngondro. If we want to do them wisely, we don’t start doing prostration, refuge and these sorts of things when we have no basis of actually having refuge mean something to us. The preliminaries are to strengthen our refuge and so on, not to generate them for the first time. Likewise, we should already be very well familiar with our sadhana before we do a retreat on the sadhana. The retreat is not the time to gain familiarity. We do that beforehand. A retreat is the time to strengthen it. Therefore, Chenrezig practice is to strengthen our compassion, not to generate it in the very first place. 

How do we generate compassion in a practice in which we want to strengthen it? Do we just think, “Now I am compassionate?” Well, thank you very much, but unless we are super advanced, that doesn’t have a lot of meaning emotionally. That’s pretty hard to just generate heart-felt compassion instantaneously. If we have accustomed ourselves to the compassion meditations, then we could remind ourselves that, just as we have a strong drive to overcome our own unhappiness and suffering, so does everybody else. Such thought brings on a feeling of renunciation, the determination to be free of our suffering. Then, with that very strong determination to be free of suffering, we switch the focus from ourselves becoming free of suffering to everybody else. That’s compassion.


Another thing that is so essential for tantra is that, in addition to bodhichitta and the correct view of voidness, we need renunciation. Renunciation, as the determination to be free, means that we are determined to give up our ordinary appearance, our ordinary self-image and the ordinary things that we are involved with and shift our focus to something purer, this Buddha-image and all of that. This is what our focus is going to be. It is not going to be on gaining more money, power, more entertainment and so on. Without that kind of renunciation, what are we doing? It’s just a vacation into, as I say, Buddhist Disneyland but not really based on seeing that attaining the state of a Buddha and manifesting in this form to help others is something that is possible. It’s not a Disneyland. What does it actually mean to arise in the form of this Buddha-figure? Why? Is this crazy? What is this? Is this what I want to be, someone with twenty-four arms and four faces? Why? We will address this further.

Renunciation, bodhichitta and a correct understanding of voidness – these three pathways of mind – are essential on top of refuge. Of course, then, we also need concentration, discipline and all the paramitas. We need all of that. Tantra practice is to strengthen these things that we have already developed and take them further, not to generate them for the first time.

Thank you. I was thinking about the Dharma-Lite version of practicing Vajrayana. To my mind, it is not so much the lack of trust that rebirth is true, because personally I feel it is more logical than all the alternatives. The thing that seems would be more of a hindrance would be the lack of these things that you are saying, the lack of concentration, lack of understanding of emptiness, lack of renunciation and so on.

Yes, for sure.

That being said, the Dharma-Lite version of Vajrayana practice could be suitable with all these things regardless of the view on rebirth.

I agree. We could start, and most of us do start, with a Dharma-Lite version. Whether we practice Dharma-Lite or the Real-Thing Dharma, we do need renunciation, the understanding of voidness and bodhichitta, at least some level of them to make sense. However, if we are going to practice especially the highest class of tantra where we have all these practices for transforming death, bardo and rebirth, the core of anuttarayoga practice, then it doesn’t make any sense if we think there is no such a thing as rebirth. There, it becomes really quite essential; we understand what is going on with the clear-light mind and how we want to break this whole cycle. 

It was described by the old Serkong Rinpoche with this wonderful image: Suppose there are two rooms, each with stairs going down into the basement. One room where we start is the room of samsara and the other is the room of enlightenment. The basement represents the clear-light level of mind. In our practice, we go down the stairs from the samsara room and, instead of going back up those same stairs, we want to shut the lights in the samsara room, change the fuse with our understanding of voidness, as it were, and turn on the lights in the enlightenment room and go up the stairs to Buddhahood.  

This image parallels what is happening with death, bardo and rebirth. We are going down the samsara stairs of one life and back up the same set of stairs into another life, over and over again. To maneuver the stairs skillfully, we need a good understanding of how rebirth works, and not just a simplified description of how the rough mind, the gross mind, withdraws from having the gross elements of the body as its basis. That is one level of what happens with the death process. In addition, we also need an understanding of the twelve links of dependent arising, which describe the rebirth process from a sutra point of view, and how we can actually reverse samsaric rebirth by ridding ourselves of ignorance. 

Then, by putting those two explanations together with advanced tantra practices, we can transform this whole process of death, bardo and rebirth in this lifetime. We don’t have to die to experience it. However, we can certainly start at the Dharma-Lite level and, I think, for most of us, it is appropriate.

Refuge and Dharma Protectors

I am doing a ngondro practice in the Kagyu tradition and have based this practice on a book or pamphlet written by the 17th Karmapa. I think it is a good source and is called something like Ngondro for Our Current Time; I don’t exactly remember. It’s written for Westerners and is abbreviated in some ways. It is made for us to be able to do this and also be able to have a job. He also writes that it is not for Tibetans. For example, some of the refuge prayer is shortened and he writes that this is for Westerners. I assume you are also familiar with the Kagyu refuge tree as well, so there are different deities with Vajrasattva in the middle and an assembly around including the lineage teachers in the mahamudra tradition and yidams and Buddha-figures and Chenrezig. At the lower level of the refuge tree there are the Dharmapalas. His Holiness the Karmapa writes that we don’t need to focus on those; that is for yogis. I find that this is an interesting point that, even in ngondro practice, there is a Dharma-Lite version and something for more advanced practitioners.

First of all, if we merely visualize the Buddha Shakyamuni as our object of refuge, it is said that Buddha incorporates every object of refuge all in one. We don’t need an elaborate tree of assembled gurus or refuge tree, because it can be overwhelming to try to visualize all these different figures on the tree. We can easily lose our focus on refuge. We can be just focusing on how to get all the little figures to appear. 

In terms of Dharma protectors, again I go back to Serkong Rinpoche’s explanation. A Dharma protector is like having a large dog at the gate of our mandala palace where we are the central figure. Actually, we are all the figures in the mandala, but for this point, let’s say we are just the central figure. Now, as that figure, the boss, we could chase away thieves from our gate. We are perfectly capable of doing that, but why do that if we can have a large dog there at the gate and the dog can chase away the thieves. The image is a huge Tibetan mastiff dog, or a pit bull to use our Western type of image, and they are pretty fierce. 

We have to be really strong to be the master and command that dog, that Dharma protector, because if we’re not capable, it can harm us. To command the dog, we have a commitment to feed it and, likewise, we have a commitment to make offerings to the Dharma protector. There is an elaborate ritual to do that. If we aren’t powerful enough as the yidam to be able to control the Dharma protector, the best protection is refuge. We can’t do better than refuge as protection. Therefore, leave it at that and leave practices with Dharmapalas to the yogis. This is very wise advice from His Holiness the Karmapa.

Just to follow up on that, in my ngondro text, I am doing the refuge including the Dharma protectors. Can I continue doing that?

There is no problem in including the Dharma protectors as part of the refuge practice. The point is are we going to actually do a protector practice ourselves and how are we going to do a protector practice? What level do we need to be at to do that practice? Monasteries have a traditional protector of the monastery and a protector room in the temple. Special monks are appointed to do all the very elaborate rituals for the protector every day without fail.

Then, the question comes, do we need to have a protector when we have a Dharma center? Are we a monastery and do we follow the model of the monastery? If we are led by a Tibetan lama, who is well qualified to be able to do these practices, then that is wonderful if he leads them, and we are basically observers. We are not really doing the protector practices ourselves in terms of us being the yidam and commanding the protector. That is okay. 

What does it mean when, visualizing the refuge tree, we take refuge in the gurus as the yidams, the dakinis, and the Dharma protectors? It means the Buddhas and gurus incorporate all of them. All of that is fine, whether or not we visualize all these figures. What I was referring to is whether we are actually ready to do a protector practice ourselves, personally. It is what we have to be very careful with. That is not something to mess around with. This is the main advice that my teachers gave. Be careful.

I’m doing ngondro now and trying to reflect on the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma and refuge. But, how I see it now, is that I have to take it slowly and it will grow gradually. Have I understood it correctly that I can keep doing refuge the way I am doing it?

You are taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Sangha can include Dharma protectors. There are many different kinds of Dharma protectors at many different levels. There are those that are manifestations of a Buddha. There are those on an arya level where they have had a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. There are those that are worldly protectors as well. Those are never placed on the Dharma tree, but rather just below it. 

If we look in the Kangyur and Tengyur, there are only a very few Dharma protectors mentioned there. Mahakala is the main one that we find. When Buddhism came to Tibet, more protectors were added that Guru Rinpoche and others tamed and that are not mentioned in the Kangyur and Tengyur. Then, when Buddhism goes from Tibet to Mongolia, we get even more. If these are manifestations of the Buddha, then they are part of Buddha refuge. If they are aryas, then they are included in Sangha refuge, and if they are worldly protectors, we can take provisional refuge in them, but not our deepest or ultimate refuge. 

We have to understand the function of protectors. There are many different places within a sadhana where they come in. There are the fifteen directional protectors, basically Hindu gods, that are then tamed and transformed into the main yidam of the sadhana and basically ordered to protect us and not to bother us. We make some offerings to them and then they go away. The idea here is that local deities, whether Hindu gods or, in Tibet, mountain spirits or whatever demons we have here in the West – they all have Buddha-nature as well. We transform them on the basis of their Buddha natures into these Buddha-figures and ask them not to make interferences in our practice with superstitions or by our confusing what we are doing with some other religious or philosophical view. There are many ways to understand how they could cause interference, and we transform them to ward off those dangers.

There are also protectors arranged in the protection wheel practice. They are forceful figures to actually guard our practice from interference in all directions. We can take that on that external level, but there is also an internal level. The protection wheel represents the heart chakra, and the protectors are guarding the energy-winds that we have dissolved at the heart chakra from emerging back out. There are many different levels at which we can take this. 

Then, there are various protectors such as Mahakala or Yamaraja or Palden Lhamo that we invite into the mandala and ask for their protection and help. Just as we get support from the Arya Sangha, we can get support from the protectors that are part of the Arya Sangha. 

Whether we are talking about dakinis or Dharma protectors, each performs a certain function that can help us on the path. The dakinis help with the generation of a blissful state of mind, not our ordinary bliss, but a blissful state of mind that causes the mind to become subtler and subtler, so that it reaches the subtlest clear light level. This subtlest level is automatically non-conceptual and is the most conducive for cognizing voidness. Dakinis help us to attain that. Dharma protectors help us avoid interference and obstacles that can arise on so many different levels. 

It’s very important when we take refuge in dakinis and Dharma protectors that we are not turning to them and pleading, “Please save me; you are my savior.” This is not Buddhism. Taking refuge is not passive, nor is it opening ourselves up to their grace. In that way, just as we don’t want interference from the Hindu gods, we don’t want to have interference from our own native beliefs either.

When our advisor Rinpoche was here the last time, she recommended that we consider starting a protector practice; but you mentioned that when we have a big dog, we have to feed it. I guess that means that we have to do a regular daily practice.

That is correct, you need to make the offerings to the protector.

That means some people need to come together every day and do that practice, but our teacher might go to India for a month or two. That means we would have to keep up that practice. I think that we would have to be very determined to do that before we start such a practice for the center.

That is right. It is a responsibility. You are making a dam-tshig, a connection, a bond with a protector. If you make that bond, just like if you buy a dog, you have to feed it. It is as simple as that. At least on some level, even if we are not super tantric practitioners, there has to be at least some level of making offerings, water bowls, a candle, something. That sort of thing is needed. 

Again, as I go back to my source, Serkong Rinpoche, the actual words that we recite when making the offerings are not so important. If we look at the Tibetan Buddhist literature, there are so many variants of absolutely everything that we can’t say that it has to be this particular verse and this particular text that we recite. We can even make the offerings in our own language, such as, “I offer this to the Dharma protectors. Please enjoy. I make up for any discrepancy, weakness or fault that I have had in my relationship with you.” This is the gist of the actual protector practices, kangso, to fulfill our commitment and heal any mistakes that we have made. That is what the protector practice is called in Tibetan. However, whatever words we use, what is important is the state of mind. “Please, I offer this to you. If I have done anything wrong, I regret that. Please continue to protect us.” That is enough if we aren’t well-versed in an entire ritual, and it would seem a bit pretentious to do it ourselves.

It’s like, for instance, when we have a commitment to offer tsog twice a month on the 10th and 25th for Vajrayogini, Vajra Palmo. Someone once asked Serkong Rinpoche what happens if they didn’t have a Tibetan calendar and they didn’t know when the 10th and the 25th of the lunar month were. To this he replied, doesn’t the Western calendar have a 10th and a 25th? In other words, don’t be superstitious about it. The point is keeping the commitment and doing something regularly.