Essentials for Understanding and Practicing Tantra

Defining Tantra in Terms of Basis, Path and Result

I am delighted to be here and to have this opportunity to speak with you about approaching Vajrayana as a Westerner. This is always an interesting question. Is there really a difference between approaching it as a Westerner or approaching it as anybody, as a human being? Putting that aside – the question of whether we are special and in need of a special way of entering it – we first need to look at what tantra actually is.

The word “tantra,” translated into Tibetan as rgyud, means a stream of continuity, one that goes on forever. We can speak about this from a basis point of view, a path point of view and a resultant point of view. 

The Basis: Transforming the Buddha-Nature Factors

On the basis level, we are speaking of the continuity of the Buddha-nature factors. These are something that have no beginning and go on and on until they transform into Buddhahood. However, it is not inevitable that they will. We have to put a great deal of effort into this. When we speak about the Buddha-nature factors, we are talking specifically about those factors that will transform into the Bodies of a Buddha. In other words, these are the working materials that will enable us to become a Buddha, and which will transform into the body and mind of a Buddha.  

What are we actually referring to here? It’s what are usually called the two “collections.” I prefer to call them the “two networks.” It is not as though we are collecting stamps or something like that. They are networks of what are usually translated as “merit” and “wisdom.” However, I prefer “positive force” and “deep awareness” for various reasons. We are building up a positive force, like a charge in a battery, from the constructive or positive things that we do. On a basis level, these give rise to the body and mind of future samsaric states, to what we are experiencing now and what we will experience in future lives. This is the basis; it is samsara and uncontrollable recurring rebirth, and this is what will go on forever unless we do something to put an end to it. 

In terms of Buddha-nature factors, we also have the conventional and deepest natures of the mind, which will also allow us to become a Buddha. They are the basis for samsara as well as nirvana.

The Path: Buddha-Figures

On the path, what we do in tantra is to try to have, arising from these networks, the body and mind of a deity, a yidam, what I call a “Buddha-figure.” These are also things that can go on as an everlasting stream of continuity. Buddha-figures don’t change their forms; for example, Chenrezig doesn’t get old. He doesn’t need to eat or anything like that. Chenrezig is something that goes on with continuity. The mind of Chenrezig would be a mind that has an understanding of bodhichitta, voidness or emptiness, etc. This is the tantra or continuity of the path.

The Result: The Bodies and Mind of a Buddha 

On the resultant level, we have the everlasting continuity of the Form Bodies and the Dharmakaya Bodies of a Buddha. This is also something that will go on with no end. 

To review, this is the meaning of tantra when we look at it in the very standard manner of understanding it in terms of basis, path and result.

Defining Tantra as a Loom

Tantra, however, also has a second meaning coming from the Sanskrit, which defines it is a loom on which we weave many things. A loom is what we weave a rug or cloth on. These practices that we do in tantra are things that allow us to weave together all the various insights and understandings that we have developed in the sutra path, and this is represented by the Buddha-figures. 

Buddha-figures are like infographics in which each of the various arms, faces and legs and what they are holding represent different levels of meaning. For instance, the four arms of Chenrezig, Avalokiteshvara, are the four immeasurable attitudes: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. 

What we try to do in tantra is to put together everything that we have learned and mastered, to a certain degree, in sutra. It all fits together in one state of mind. This is one of the reasons why tantra is quite advanced. It is extremely difficult to do if we haven’t already trained ourselves very well in all the different aspects of what we have learned in sutra.

Sutra and Tantra as Causal and Resultant Paths

Causal Practice: Sutra

Another way of explaining tantra as opposed to sutra is that sutra is described as the causal path and tantra as the resultant path. In other words, in sutra practices we are putting our emphasis on the causes for attaining the Bodies of a Buddha. For instance, if we look at the 32 major marks and 80 minor marks of a Form Body of a Buddha and learn the practices that are the causes of each of them, then, when focusing on a representation of Buddha, we can focus on all the causal practices that lead to the resultant different aspects of a Buddha Body. Therefore, even in sutra we have a form of infographics, if we really want to look at these major and minor marks on a non-superficial level. 

For example, a Buddha has a very long tongue, and this is representative of a caring for others with as much affection and care as a mother animal has when licking her young. To represent this cause, a Buddha has a long tongue. If we are aware of all these 112 factors (32 major marks plus 80 minor marks) of a Buddha, they are, in fact, even more complicated than the various features of an actual yidam. 

In sutra practice, then, we are emphasizing the causes, like affection for others, such as a mother animal has for her young, as a way of attaining the body and kindness of a Buddha. This is an example of the causal practice of sutra.

Resultant Practice: Tantra

Tantra, on the other hand, is the resultant practice because we imagine ourselves already as a yidam or Buddha-figure. I don’t like to use the word “deity” so much because this brings up all sorts of associations of either a creator god or the ancient Greek or Hindu gods, which are not at all the association that we want to bring up when we think of these yidams. 

It is very interesting how the word “yidam” was translated. With yidam in Tibetan, the yi is for mind, and dam is from damtsig – in Sanskrit, samaya – which is something that makes a close association for our mind to achieve the body and mind of a Buddha. That’s a yidam. In Sanskrit they call it an iṣṭadevatā. Devatā is a deity; that’s why it’s usually translated that way, but it is not exactly the same word as the gods on Mount Meru. Iṣṭa means what is wished for, in the sense that their state is what we wish to attain. This is the way that the term is derived in Sanskrit.  

We have these Buddha-figures, yidams, and in tantra practice we imagine that we have already arisen in that form of a Buddha-figure, an enlightened figure, while knowing full well that we are not there yet. It’s not some sort of weird schizophrenic trip. It is not like someone running around claiming be Tara or Chenrezig. It is based totally on a correct understanding and the prior generation of bodhichitta.  

What is bodhichitta? Bodhichitta is a mind aimed at our own future enlightenment, which we haven’t attained yet, but which we can attain on the basis of these Buddha-nature factors. We are looking down the line of our mental continuum to a point that hasn’t happened yet, but which can happen if we put in the work to attain Buddhahood. These networks, which we are speaking about as a basis, can transform into the Bodies of a Buddha. 

In addition, we are imagining that we are there already, but we are fully aware that it hasn’t actually happened yet. It is very important to know that it can happen. Then, we arise in this type of form. This is what is known as the “resultant state” or “resultant” type of practice. Even though we haven’t achieved the full mind of a Buddha where obscurations are all removed, where we have a non-conceptual cognition of the two truths at the same time, emptiness or voidness and pure appearance at the same time, we have something that, as a path, will transform into them. 

It’s not that we pretend that we have them on the basis of nothing. We have to imagine that we have the body and mind of a Buddha on the basis of some level of generation of bodhichitta and understanding of voidness. Bodhichitta is supported by compassion and love, etc. This is the resultant path. It’s very important to understand this.

Belief in Rebirth Divides “Dharma-Lite” and the “Real-Thing Dharma”

Here is the issue that comes up when we ask if there is a special way of practicing Vajrayana for Westerners. How do we approach it as a Westerner? For most of us, we don’t really have the cultural background that would give us the support for automatically believing in rebirth, past and future lives. However, when we look at the actual teachings of Dharma, the dividing line between whether we are doing something worldly or something dharmic is whether or not we are doing something for our future lives. It’s very clear that focus on future lives is considered the starting point for a Dharma practice.

Here we are as Westerners, and we are very skeptical about rebirth, at best, rather than being antagonistic and saying that it is nonsense and totally rejecting it. This leads us to what I have coined as phrases “Dharma-Lite and the Real-Thing Dharma.” I define Dharma-Lite as a practice of Buddhism that is solely aimed at improving this lifetime. If we sincerely examine whether we are really practicing Dharma to improve future lives, many of us would find that although we might say that we are, deep inside we don’t really feel this on a gut emotional level or state.

This is fine if this is the level that we are at. We can certainly benefit a great deal from the Buddhist practice. However, we need to acknowledge that the Real-Thing Dharma includes the whole picture of future lives. 

Future lives are very important when we talk about the three scopes of aim or motivation as presented in the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. The initial level is to improve future lives. In this context, the whole understanding of karma is based on rebirth because most of the things that we do in this lifetime don’t actually ripen in this lifetime. For example, why is it that incredible high lamas, yogis and masters in Tibet were thrown in concentration camps when the Chinese came into Tibet? That becomes very difficult to understand. Why are some dictators committing all sorts of atrocities and yet live a life of luxury? Therefore again, without thinking in terms of rebirth and long-term consequences of what we do, the whole presentation of karma becomes very problematic.

The intermediate level is to attain liberation. However, liberation from what? It is from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. When we look at the twelve links of dependent arising, what are they describing? They are describing how samsaric rebirth works and how to reverse it and gain liberation from it. So, the intermediate level, like the initial level, is likewise based on belief in rebirth. 

In the advanced scope, the aim is to attain enlightenment in order to help everybody to overcome uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. This is the Real-Thing Dharma. We make this differentiation.

What is important as practitioners of Dharma-Lite is that we acknowledge that it is not the real thing. We don’t reduce the Buddhist teachings to just something that is to improve this lifetime. We say that we don’t quite understand rebirth, but we are open to the idea as we further develop our understanding. We will examine it again. We leave the door open and have respect for it; however, we acknowledge that we are not there yet. 

This is perfectly fine and, being completely honest, allows us to grow with the Dharma and think more and more deeply as we progress. We can examine whether these teachings on rebirth make any sense. They will only make sense if we have an understanding of the voidness or emptiness of the self of a person and the voidness of cause and effect. Otherwise, we are thinking of rebirth in a way that the Buddhists would reject. This would be that we have a soul that goes from one rebirth to another; a “me” or a self that is some solid thing, such as thinking now I am Alex and Alex will next be reborn as Fifi, the poodle. This is not quite what Buddhism would accept. Just a rough understanding of voidness is fine to start with, but it is important to know that it is very advanced for us to actually understand the whole process of rebirth.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Presentation of Three Aspects of Buddhism

This presentation of Dharma-Lite and the Real-Thing Dharma fits in very nicely with the approach that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been making, speaking of Buddhism in terms of three aspects. He says that there is Buddhist science dealing with perception theory, the presentation of logic, the presentation of beginningless and multiple universes, etc. There is also Buddhist philosophy that addresses the whole understanding of voidness and particularly how a lot of these teachings fit very closely with quantum physics and the findings and consequences of quantum physics. The third aspect is Buddhist religion and that is where we have rebirth and all the devotional types of practices. 

When we speak in terms of Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy, these are things that are open to anybody and can be of benefit to anybody. This fits very well with Dharma-Lite. When we move into Buddhist religion, it gets into the real thing. Therefore, with this way of dividing the teachings using this three-part vision or explanation that His Holiness uses, Dharma-Lite and Real-Thing Dharma are quite harmonious with each other.

Ngondro Is the Foundation for Tantra

Whether we are practitioners of Tantra-Lite or Real-Thing Tantra, it is very essential that we practice ngondro, or preliminary practices. Ngondro is the basis or foundation for tantra. This we find in any presentation of tantra. There is no reason to discard or disregard it as Westerners. Often, as Westerners, of course, we want to get things at a bargain. We bargain with the teachings: can we get away with only doing this many repetitions of the ngondro practices instead of that many? However, this is really not the most beneficial manner in which to practice. 

Common and Uncommon Preliminary Practices

If we look at the word, “ngondro,” it is literally something that comes before, like a preparation for something that follows. There are two aspects of it: the common and uncommon preliminaries. 

“Common” sometimes gives an incorrect connotation that they are ordinary or that just “commoners” practice them, as if we were nobility. We think that we don’t need that; but really, the term translated here as “common” means “shared.” It is what is shared in common between sutra and tantra. The uncommon or unshared preliminaries are those practices that are specifically intended for tantra, although they are very helpful for sutra as well. 

How to Counter Negative States of Mind and Destructive Behavior

The problem, if we think about it, is that we have beginningless lifetimes. That is the Real-Thing Dharma. But even if we think only in terms of this lifetime, we have lived quite a number of years before we get involved in any sort of tantra practice. That means that we have built up a tremendous habit of thinking in negative or ignorant ways, ways that don’t accord with reality. We are so caught up in our fantasies, projections, selfishness, self-centeredness, anger, and all sorts of disturbing emotions. This is something very deeply ingrained in ourselves. We have to develop new, better habits if we are to have any success with tantra.

One of the very helpful guidelines that some of the great teachers give is to examine our lifetime and consider how many negative states of mind and harmful and destructive actions we have done over our entire lifetime. How many times have we yelled at someone, lost our temper, been clinging, greedy and selfish and so on? Compare that to the number of times and the amount of time we have spent in this life being positive and constructive, clear in mind, loving and caring, etc. Then, we will have some idea of what the future holds in store for us. 

We always assume, even if we accept rebirth, that of course we are always going to be a human being. We never consider being a chicken or a cockroach in our next lifetime. If we think in terms of remembering past lifetimes, they are always as a human. We don’t remember any past lifetimes as a cockroach. This is very strange that we think we are always human. This is the problem.

We have such a strong habit of being self-centered and having unproductive ways of thinking that we need to counter that. How do we counter that if we have had millions of repetitions of selfish thoughts or of losing our temper even in this lifetime? We need to somehow build up a very positive force to counteract that so that instead of instinctively being angry, upset, or worried when we face a challenging situation, we approach it automatically with patience, compassion and care for others. 

The Importance of Repetition

Even if we speak in terms of a scientific approach of building new neural pathways, how do we do that? We do that by repetition, the same way that we would learn to play a musical instrument. Repeating something 100,000 times compared to the number of times that we have lost our temper in our lifetime is just a start, really. However, we begin to appreciate the importance of repetition. Repetition doesn’t just mean going “blah blah blah.” If we haven’t actually built up an apt state of mind, then just training our mouth to repeat something 100,000 times isn’t going to make very much of a transformation.

One of the words for a sadhana, these practices that we do in tantra, is “dagkye” (bdag-bskyed) in Tibetan. This means a generation of oneself. My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, always said it is a self-generation; it is not a voice-generation, “kakye” (bka’-bskyed). It’s not a mouth-generation in which we are generating our mouth into saying something in these practices. We are working on improving our self, working on our mind. This is what is involved. 

If we think only in terms of 100,000 repetitions of the unshared or uncommon ngondro or preliminaries – like doing 100,000 prostrations or 100,000 Vajrasattva mantras, etc. – and we don’t think in the same terms with the common preliminaries, then we are short-changing ourselves. Really, if we wanted to do it properly, we should do 100,000 meditations on the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma. These are precious human rebirth, death and impermanence, sufferings of samsara, and then karma, cause and effect. Add on top of that, of course, refuge and bodhichitta and the six paramitas or far-reaching attitudes or perfections, renunciation, and all these things. We need to repeat them over and over again, if not 100,000 times or more, to make them really ingrained. 

Safe Direction or Refuge 

What is the point of doing 100,000 prostrations and recitations of the refuge formula if refuge doesn’t mean anything to us? We might as well be doing 100,000 push-ups. There is not very much difference. Our state of mind is the most important thing. On a deep level, we really have to understand refuge. How easy it is to minimize the importance of refuge. Refuge is known as the gateway of the Dharma, so it has to mean something to us. The word “refuge” can seem passive in English, but it is not something passive. It is something that is very active. It means that we are putting a safe direction in our life and entrusting ourselves to it. 

If we think in terms of the actual Dharma Jewel, what is it? It is actually the third and fourth noble truths. It is the true stopping of all the obscurations, disturbing emotions and so on; it is a full stopping of these so that they never return. The Dharma Jewel is a true path, the true understandings that will bring that about. This is what we are aiming for, and it has to occur on a mental continuum. The Buddhas are those who have attained it in full and teach us the way to attain it. The Sangha, the Arya Sangha, are those who have attained it in part. They show us that it is possible to proceed in an orderly type of fashion to achieve that Dharma Jewel ourselves. 

This is what we are talking about and what we are imagining when we are working on the resultant level of tantra. Refuge is absolutely necessary. It is the direction that we are entrusting ourselves to and working on in our life. This is the meaning that we have to put into our lives. We need to work on ourselves and build up something very positive in order to clean out and get rid of all this junk, all these negative things that cloud our minds. 

Vajrasattva and Guru-Yoga

What are we doing with Vajrasattva meditation if it’s not on the basis of refuge? What are we doing it for? What are we trying to attain? What are we doing a mandala offering for? What are we offering in terms of that? We offer our two networks: the networks of deep awareness and positive force. These are what we are offering − everything; we dedicate them to enlightenment, to the Buddhas and to all beings. 

What about guru-yoga? It is done to integrate into us the state of enlightened body, speech and mind that is represented by the gurus. We can see, in terms of the Buddha-nature of the guru, the same Buddha-nature within ourselves. This inspires us − that we can reach the same level. 

Without the foundational basis of what we learn in sutra, the uncommon preliminaries don’t make any sense. We can’t say that they have no benefit whatsoever; of course, they have some benefit even if we do them mindlessly with very little going on in our heads. Afterall, there are the standard accounts of a fly circumambulating a stupa on a donkey turd during the monsoon and how that fly builds up some positive force. However, we are human beings; we have a precious human rebirth, and this means we have a mind and intellect that is actually able to generate these networks. We have the ability to understand. We have the ability to listen to something in order for it to make some sort of an impression. We are able to read and have some understanding of what we are reading. Surely, we can do better than a fly on a turd.

It is absolutely essential, if we are going to involve ourselves in tantra practice, to be serious about it. To be serious about it, we need to do these preliminaries. My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, used to use this image of milking the meaning out of the words so that we get everything out of them that we can. He would always ask me the connotation of the English words that I was using to translate. He said that the word “preliminaries” was not so good a word. He said “preparation” was better. An image that would be meaningful in a Tibetan connotation is a caravan. Before we can go on a long journey, we have to prepare. We have to get all the provisions of what we would need, pack all the animals well, really think ahead about the food and all of these things. This is preparation, and the word makes far more sense than preliminary. With a preliminary, we think that we can forget about that step. We think, “Who needs that?” 

However, it’s preparation for the journey. What is it that we are going to need on the journey of Vajrayana, this vajra vehicle that is going to take us all the way to enlightenment? A vajra, dorje in Tibetan, is strong; it can’t be broken. It is sometimes translated as “diamond-strong.” 

We can ask, of course, to what level do we need the preliminaries before we can actually engage in a meaningful way in tantra? This is open to a lot of debate. “At least some level” is about as precise as we can get it. Each of the preliminaries need to actually mean something to us and is not just words. 

Precious Human Life and Impermanence

These preliminaries need to start making a transformation in our lives so that we really appreciate that we have a precious human life. We need to understand all the positive things we have going for us and how fortunate we are to not be in some horrible situation in which we would be unable to actually work on ourselves. This is what we are focusing on: working on ourselves so that we can not only be a happier person but also that we can be of more help to others, because it really bothers us that others are suffering and unhappy. We really feel that we have to do something about it; not that we think that we are god almighty, but we can at least help as best as we can. This has to be real to us and not just words. Then, if we meet a beggar or homeless person on the street, we feel something, and don’t just think, “Don’t bother me.” It isn’t that we would rather not see this person’s situation. 

This is a precious human rebirth, and we don’t get into the attitude of “Poor me, I don’t have garlic sauce for my döner kebab,” an example that we use in Berlin for what can be called “first-world problems”; “Oh how horrible it is that they are out of garlic sauce,” as if this is the worst thing in the world. Obviously, it is not that terrible. We need to think of the positive things and not just “poor me,” complaining all the time. 

Life is not going to last. That doesn’t mean that we need to become a fanatic, but just use our time seriously and realize that it could end at any time. We don’t have to only think in terms of death. There is also impermanence in terms of the economy, war, diseases; anything can happen. Therefore, we need to really take seriously what is going to happen. My closest friend had a heart attack in the shower and dropped dead at age 54. He seemed perfectly healthy and “bam,” in just a few moments he was dead. This can happen at any time.

These insights of the shared ngondro are very essential for sincere practice.

Uncommon Preliminaries Build Up Positive Force and Weaken Negative Potentials 

What are we trying to do with the uncommon preliminary practices? We are trying to build up more positive force and cleanse, to a certain extent, the negative potentials. This is on the basis of the Buddha-nature factors, our two networks of positive force and deep awareness. We build up the positive force with prostration, and cleanse and weaken the negative force with Vajrasattva practice so that we can make the transformation. Rather than these two networks giving rise to more and more samsara, even if just in this lifetime, instead, they give rise to something more enlightened on the path and resultant levels. 

To have that transformation take place so that these two networks stop giving rise to all this trouble and give rise to something more positive, we have to obviously build up that positive force and weaken that negative force. This is the problem with Dharma-Lite, because we don’t want to build up that positive force just to have a better samsara in this lifetime. That is what happens and what karma is all about. When we do a lot of positive things and we don’t dedicate them to enlightenment, what happens? At best, it improves our samsara later in this lifetime. For example, we might be richer and have more friends, or people will be honest with us, etc. But, of course, that might not ripen in this lifetime, only in some future lifetime.

This improvement is all very nice, but it is still troublesome if we think about the disadvantages of samsara, which is one of the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma. Ordinary happiness doesn’t last; it never is enough. This is a type of fundamental problem that we have with uncontrollably recurring rebirth. We want to at least dedicate that positive force so that, instead of it going to improve samsara, it goes to contributing to enlightenment. For this, we have to have some sort of level of bodhichitta and dedication when we are doing our preliminaries; otherwise, we will just make a nicer samsara, and this is not what we are aiming for.

Then, we have to ask ourselves a question. On the basis of Dharma-Lite, not believing in rebirth yet, or thinking maybe there is such a thing, but actually we don’t really believe in it, can we also aim for enlightenment? Yes, this is what we can do. It does get into the whole discussion of enlightenment in one lifetime; nevertheless, there is that remote possibility that we can do it in one lifetime; so, fine. In that case, we can still think in terms of the prospect of just this lifetime when we are practicing Dharma as a Westerner who doesn’t quite believe in rebirth yet. However, the dedication to enlightenment on the basis of bodhichitta is essential if we want to transform these networks, the so-called collections, into enlightenment-building ones.

We are talking about what will build up enlightenment. We get this from the Sanskrit connotation of the word that is translated as “collection.” Literally, it means something that builds. This was pointed out to me by Geshe Wangchen. He has passed away, but he was the tutor of the reincarnation of Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor of His Holiness. He pointed this out as the real meaning if we go back to the Sanskrit and look at the commentaries. He said it is something that builds; it builds up samsara, liberation or enlightenment. It all depends on whether or not we dedicate this positive force. The Sanskrit word is sambhara, something that builds.

Therefore, the preliminaries are very important. The most important point about them is that we need to practice them in the proper order. The proper order is first the shared ngondro. Don’t just skip over the sutra path. We have to understand that this is what we are packing as our preparation for going on to Vajrayana. If we don’t, it’s as if we don’t have that in the saddlebags of our yaks that we are taking on this journey. In other words, it’s as if we haven’t packed our bags and put them in the trunk of our car. We can’t check our bags to go on an airplane because we didn’t pack them in the first place for our journey. If we go on the journey, we will be empty-handed. We won’t have anything. Basically, we need to make this preparation.

Then, with this sutra practice as our preparation, it will add more meaning to the prostrations that we do, the Vajrasattva practice that we do and so on. We shouldn’t short-change ourselves by not packing enough clothes or not taking enough food for the long trek. In the end, what will happen is that we will suffer. It’s very easy in tantra practice to go off into some sort of weird fantasyland type of trip with all of these visualizations and so on. It is quite easy to go a bit loony and get out of touch with reality. We certainly don’t want that. That’s not going to be of any help. We get this attitude of “I love Milarepa and I’m such a great yogi,” and we are just basically avoiding facing life by going off into this beautiful fantasyland of the visualization. That is also not at all what we want to do.

That’s why we have the common preliminaries, the shared preliminaries and, only after them, the unshared preliminaries. Let’s let that sink in for a few moments before continuing. If we have been doing ngondro, these preparatory practices, or if we are thinking about doing them, try to examine what you are doing and why you are doing them. What do you hope to accomplish? This is because when we undertake these preparatory practices, it’s going to be tough. They take a lot of time, effort, and it’s not going to be fun. If we aren’t clear about why we are doing preliminary practices and what is going to sustain us while doing them, we are going to have a difficult time. What we don’t want to do is to give up in the middle with a defeatist type of attitude or think at a certain point that this is stupid and question why we are doing them.

That’s why we have this word that is usually translated as “secrecy.” There is secrecy in tantra. It doesn’t mean that it’s a deep dark secret and we can’t tell anybody, like a child’s secret that we want to keep. The connotation of that word is “private.” We want to keep private what we are doing. We don’t want other people to know, as that can open us up to some people making fun of us or trying to discourage us by saying that what we are doing is really weird or stupid. We don’t want to open ourselves up to that. We don’t need that. 

We have to be very clear in terms of our motivation, what we are doing and why we are doing this. We can share this with our teacher, as we trust and have confidence in our teacher. We have checked him or her out, and not just going by a name or thinking that since everybody else in the group is doing preliminaries, so we have to do them as well. As Serkong Rinpoche said, we don’t want to be somebody that rushes out on the ice and then, once in the middle, turns around to check if the ice can hold us. We should check things out first before rushing into things. 

We enter into this contact, this close connection with the tantra practices. We pledge that we are going to do them and keep it private. Other people don’t really need to know. Then, it becomes something sacred. This is an important thing to have. Our tantra practice and ngondro are things that we need to do with respect. Other people might disrespect them, but they will only disrespect them if they know what we are doing. They don’t have to know. Do them privately. It is much better.

Again, if we are engaged in these practices or considering engaging in these practices, think about our attitude and what we have discussed so far for a few moments.

[Pause for contemplation]

Tantra: An Everlasting Continuity Based on Networks of Positive Force and Deep Awareness

Let’s summarize what we have covered so far so we don’t get lost in this discussion. Tantra means an everlasting continuity. We have continuity on the basis of these networks of positive force and deep awareness. Deep awareness concerns how our mind functions. On the fullest level, of course, it means the full understanding of the four noble truths, with the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, the understanding of voidness of the four noble truths, etc. 

However, on another level, deep awareness is just talking about how our mind functions, with the five types of deep awareness:

  • We are able to take in information. 
  • We are able to see patterns and see how things fit together. 
  • We are able to recognize the individuality of things. 
  • We are able to accomplish things and know what to do. 
  • We are able to know what things are. 

This is the basic way in which the mind works. We have this deep awareness network and the positive force network. On the basis level, these networks give rise to more and more experiences in this lifetime and future lifetimes as well. However, on the path, we want them to stop giving rise to just samsaric stuff and to give rise to something similar to the result – these Buddha-figures we can use as a pathway to bring us to the result.

On the resultant level, when they become enlightenment-building, these networks can give rise to the Bodies of a Buddha. The nature of the mind being pure, etc., is going to allow for that transformation to take place. How do we make that transformation take place? Like in tantra, we have to weave together all the different practices that we do and do them all together at once while imagining that we are in this Buddha-form. This Buddha-form is an infographic and everything that we are visualizing is a representation of some sort of insight, understanding and state of mind that we have gained through our sutra practice. This includes the four immeasurables, etc.  

Some of these deities have six arms and those are the six paramitas. With a deity with four faces, it represents the four Buddha Bodies, the four Kayas. All of these different things represent something; it’s not that we want to have six or four arms or hold all these things forever in our hands. This is not quite what this is all about. Instead, what we are practicing and our preparations concern what we are going to weave together and what we need in order to bring about this transformation. We do this so that our basic Buddha-nature factors will not just continue to give rise to more samsara and more trouble. They will give rise to liberation and enlightenment. This is an overview of what we have addressed so far. It is the basis. We are practicing something similar to the result of what we are aiming to achieve.