The Most Essential Aspects of Tantra Practice


Yesterday, we spoke about the meaning of tantra, a stream of continuity that goes on forever. There is a basis level – our mental continuum with the Buddha-nature factors. These include our networks of positive force and deep awareness, and the relative and deepest natures of our mind. On the basis level, they give rise to our uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. On the pathway level, these Buddha-nature factors no longer give rise to samsaric rebirth and the samsaric experiences of our ordinary lives. Instead, they give rise to those things that are similar to the result that we want to achieve and that will help us achieve that result. These are the Buddha-figures, or yidams, for example, and our understanding of voidness. Then, on the resultant level, these Buddha-nature factors will transform and give rise to the Enlightening Bodies of a Buddha. Tantra means this continuity of our Buddha-nature factors on each of these three levels. 

Tantra also has this connotation of a loom on which we weave together all the different insights and understandings that we’ve developed in the sutra path. On the sutra path, we are working with emphasis on the causes that will bring about the Bodies of a Buddha, whereas in tantra we are working on something similar to the result – the so-called “purities.” This entails imagining ourselves already in the form of these Buddha-figures having all the qualities of a Buddha, such as the enlightening influence to be able to benefit all beings. Our speech is in an enlightening form as represented by mantras. Our environment is pure like that of mandalas. Our minds are pure in terms of understanding voidness and having bodhichitta. Our way of enjoying things is pure, without any disturbances of attachment, clinging and so on. 

We have all these purities that we imagine in our tantra practice. Imagining that we have them now is very much in accordance with bodhichitta, with which we are focusing on our own individual enlightenments that have not yet happened, but which can happen based on these Buddha-nature factors. So, we want to renounce the basis level of our body, speech, mind, environment, activities, and ways of enjoying and turn to the pure level of the result through the pathway level. The voidness or emptiness of our minds, as well as its conventional nature, allow for this transformation. 

All these points we’ve been discussing fit together and tantra is a way of weaving them very nicely with each other so that they all combine in one package that we generate in one state of mind in one moment. This is what we are aiming to be able to do with the attainment of enlightenment.


When we talk about karmic aftermath and the networks of positive and negative potential, it may be helpful to clarify some possible misunderstanding about karma. Karma is often translated as “actions.” This is probably because the Tibetan word for it is the colloquial word for “actions.” However, if we take that literally, then if the troublemaker we need to rid ourselves of is our actions, then all we need to do is stop doing anything and we will be free of suffering and karma. That obviously is not the meaning. 

Looking at the definitions and explanations in the texts of the great Indian Buddhist masters, we see that karma is referring to the compulsiveness of our actions. According to one set of commentaries, karma is strictly a mental state – the compelling urge that brings us to think, speak or act compulsively under the influence of ignorance and disturbing emotions. According to another set of commentaries, this is the case for actions of the mind, but for actions of the body and speech, karma refers to the compulsive motions of the body or compulsive utterances of speech with which we carry our actions of the body or speech. In either case, we are compulsively acting under the influence of disturbing emotions such as greed, attachment, anger, hostility, confusion, closed-mindedness, etc. This leads to not only compulsive destructive behavior, but also compulsive constructive behavior. The compulsiveness is there because of the previous tendencies and habits that we have built up. 

For instance, we can compulsively be do-gooders, which, to use a Western term, is quite neurotic. It is perfectionism, with which we feel compelled, for example, to clean our house or wash our hands over and over again or to offer help to everybody even when they don’t want or need it. We could be writing and never satisfied with what we write. We are always correcting it further and further, never being able to finish. This is the compulsiveness of karma and it is the problem with karma. Karma, driven by ignorance and the disturbing emotions, bring about the basis level, samsara, that we strive to purify ourselves of with tantra so as to attain enlightenment. 

The Mind or Mental Activity

As the cycle of death, bardo and rebirth occur, the mind passes through different levels. Death is the subtlest, then comes bardo and then with rebirth, mind is at its coarsest level. With enlightenment, the mind remains always at its subtlest level. But what is the mind?

When we speak about mind in Buddhism, we are not speaking about a “thing.” It is much easier to understand if we conceive of the mind in terms of mental activity. There is a certain cognitive activity that is going on all the time, moment to moment. This is usually defined as clarity and awareness, and sometimes the word “mere,” meaning “only,” is added. Let’s look at each of these terms.

Clarity is the aspect of mental activity that gives rise to the mental appearance of something, somewhat like a mental hologram. That is what is actually going on with mental activity even from a Western point of view. For example, with seeing, we have photons coming and striking the photosensitive cells on our retinas, they’re translated into electric and chemical impulses, these go to various regions in the brain, and somehow there arises what we experience as a visual mental hologram, a sight. 

The arising of a mental hologram, however, is not like the arising of an image in a mirror. There is also a cognitive aspect, a cognitive engagement of knowing or not knowing what something is, some emotion, a feeling of happiness or unhappiness, and so on. This is the awareness aspect of mental activity.

A mental arising and a mental engagement are not two consecutive activities. It’s not that first a sight arises, and then we see it, or first a thought arises, and then we think it. The arising and the engaging are one and the same activity, just described from two points of view. There is also an energy component involved with mental activity as well. This energy is called “wind” in figurative Dharma language. This is describing mental activity from a physical energy point of view. The gross physical basis of the brain, the nervous system and so on, are the equipment with which the mental activity occurs. 

Mind, then, is the individual, subjective experiencing of something, which scientists describe, from a material, objective perspective, in terms of the workings of the brain. The two descriptions are not contradictory. The word “mere” or “only” in the definition refers to the fact that only these aspects are involved with mental activity. There is no separate “me” making it happen or observing it happening. Science would agree.

The Transformation of Mental Activity

During the cycle of death, bardo and rebirth, the different levels of mental activity that occur have different levels of energy-winds supporting them. Just as the energy-winds of the coarsest level of mind are the coarsest, those of the subtlest level of mind are the subtlest. During death, the mental activity and energy-winds are the subtlest; during bardo, both are merely subtle; and with rebirth, both become coarse. 

This coarse level of mental activity and energy-wind occurs with sensory cognition – seeing, hearing and so on. The mental holograms that arise then are made of coarse energy-wind. The subtle level of both occurs with conceptual cognition, which occurs in thinking, imagining, visualizing, and dreaming. It also occurs during bardo. The mental holograms then are made of subtle energy-wind. The subtlest mind, called the “clear-light mind,” and the subtlest energy-wind become manifest at death. The mental holograms then are made of this subtlest energy-wind. As we take rebirth after rebirth through the mechanism of the twelve links, our mental activity and energy-winds repeatedly go up and down, from coarse to subtle and back again, driven by ignorance, karma and disturbing emotions. This is the basis level that we want to transform and get rid of.

The General Difference between Clear Light and Rigpa

Many people are involved with dzogchen, so I should point out, as an aside, the difference between clear light and rigpa. Clear light is this subtlest level of mind either with or without the stains of the karmic aftermath and the habits and tendencies of ignorance and the disturbing emotions. These stains are not part of the essential nature of our mental activity. They are fleeting and can be removed. 

On the basis level, the clear-light mind that we experience at death is still with these fleeting stains. On the advanced pathway levels, the fleeting stains are partially removed. On the resultant level, they are gone forever. But on all three levels, the essential nature of our mental activity is pure of these. That pure, unstained aspect is rigpa, “pure awareness.” 

Generation and Complete Stages of Anuttarayoga Tantra

In Real-Thing tantra practice, specifically in anuttarayoga tantra, we emulate this process of death, bardo and rebirth. For death, we emulate getting down to the clear-light level of mental activity, which we’ve described as being like going down the samsara staircase to the basement. Once there, we don’t want to go back up that samsara staircase, which we would ordinarily do out of our habits of ignorance by activating the karmic tendencies that are staining this clear-light level. To avoid that, we focus on voidness with our emulation of this clear-light level of mind. Doing this enables us to emulate going up the nirvana staircase to enlightenment instead. 

Anuttarayoga tantra has two stages of practice, the generation stage and the complete stage, sometimes translated as the “development” or “creation stage” and the “completion stage.” On the generation stage, which comes first, we are not actually able to get down to the clear-light level, so we merely imagine doing so. Furthermore, we have only a conceptual level of understanding voidness and only some level of labored bodhichitta. From our simulation of a clear-light cognition of voidness, we imagine arising in the form of a Buddha-figure, a yidam similar to the Form Bodies that we will achieve. This is usually done in two steps: first in a simple form and then a more complex one, like Samboghakaya and Nirmanakaya.

On the complete stage, the tools are now ready – we have now attained a joint state of shamatha and vipashyana – to be able to access and manipulate the subtle energies of our subtle energy system – the chakras and channels – so that we are eventually able to access the clear-light level of mind with a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. We are then able to generate a facsimile of a Form Body out of the subtlest energy-winds, although we still need to attain a true stopping of the stains still obscuring our clear-light mind.  

All of this has to do with the definition of mental activity: mental activity gives rise to cognitive appearances with some cognitive engagement. Instead of our mental activity giving rise to our ordinary appearances, we want it to give rise to a pure appearance of a Buddha-figure, its mandala and the environment around it. We are generating not only ourselves in the aspect of these pure appearances based on the potentials of our own Buddha-nature factors to give rise to our own not-yet-happening enlightenment, but we can also imagine everybody else with these pure appearances of a Buddha-figure, and so on, on the basis of their Buddha-nature factors. Do you see how, in this way, this all ties in with love, compassion and equanimity as well? 

There are many ways of working with this. We can look at the various explanations. Sakya, for instance, speaks about the inseparability of samsara and nirvana. This refers to the ability of the clear-light level to give rise to both samsaric and nirvanic appearances. Both types of appearance have the same nature of being a cognitive appearance. They both equally arise from the common appearance-making function of mental activity. Because of this, when we are doing these visualizations of everything being pure around us, it isn’t that we can’t cross a street because we can’t see the cars coming. What we experience is almost like a superimposition where we can see both the samsaric and nirvanic levels simultaneously, and then it’s a matter of which one we put the emphasis on. Otherwise, we can’t function.

As is emphasized in the teachings on voidness, we need to understand voidness as meaning dependent arising. They do not contradict each other. Voidness does not obstruct the functionality of things; rather, it enables things to function. Doing these visualizations shouldn’t be a method to wipe out everything that is going on around us. However, it is a way of seeing what is possible from the potential that everyone and the environment has as well, rather than superimposing our habitual but impossible view of the way that things exist.  

In short, what we want to have on that pathway tantra level is some facsimile of what will be happening with the resultant level. On the generation stage, this is done with imagination − imagining or creating something with our imagination. On the compete stage, we are actually able to make something arise out of the subtlest energies. In addition, we are building up more and more positive force, not just by sitting there and meditating, but by actually doing something to help others besides imagining that we are helping all others. It’s not enough to just imagine or visualize that − we need to actually do something.


Through repeated practice, building up more and more positive potential and deep awareness dedicated to our enlightenment, eventually we’re able to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha in which all the so-called “obscurations” staining our clear-light minds are gone. We have achieved a true stopping of all the different subtle levels of the obscurations so that no impure appearance arises again. Thinking about this, we can see very clearly that renunciation is part of the whole process. We need to renounce the ordinary appearance and the ordinary rebirth process. “Renunciation” – the actual word in Tibetan, ngejung, means to become certain and definite. That is why I translate it as a determination to be free.

Just as an aside, we can ask ourselves, in the process of developing renunciation, what is the emotional state that accompanies renunciation? Remember, we have five aggregates and that means that any state of mind is a composite of many factors. With renunciation, what is the emotion that goes with that? In working with it on a practical level, we can develop a bit of anger with ourselves. “Oh, this is so stupid; why am I involved with this?” We can feel disgusted and fed up with something. That is part of it; however, being angry with something and angry with ourselves for being so stupid is another disturbing emotion. 

For instance, when we want to give up smoking, we might think, “I broke down and had another cigarette. I am so annoyed, disappointed and disgusted with myself.” This is a very negative view of ourselves and is not a state of mind with which we can actually develop renunciation. A state of mind that seems to actually work is being bored. “I am so bored with getting upset. I am so bored with worrying, so bored with compulsively eating, I’ve had enough.” We lose interest and it is only out of boredom and totally losing interest that we actually give something up. It is not on the basis of anger or disgust. This way is a more natural turning away and is an interesting thing to think about and to work on from our own experience, especially when we have these uncontrollably recurring problems of samsara.

In the context of tantra, then, we also need to develop renunciation – the determination to be free from all our ordinary appearance-making and our clinging to it. To do that, we need to become bored with it – bored with continually going back up the samsara staircase every time we die, never knowing which room of samsara we’ll end up in. We need to lose all interest in it. 

Transformation and the Function of Buddha-Figures

So much of tantra is involved with transformation, especially of the appearance of the body with which we arise from clear light. As we discussed, one of the benefits of tantra, is, rather than focusing on our ordinary body, focusing instead on ourselves appearing as a Buddha-figure. With our ordinary body, we don’t have a stable object to focus on. We have this pain and that pain and so on, whereas a Buddha-figure doesn’t change and has no pains. With a Buddha-figure as our object of focus, we always have the same thing to come back to and focus on when our minds wander. 

It is also important to understand the function of these Buddha-figures and why they are in these various forms. They are pretty weird from our conventional point of view. Why would we want to arise with four arms or six or twenty-four and all these faces and legs and holding all these things? Is that really what we want to do?

To understand these Buddha-figures, we need to look at the description of the Buddha Bodies into which they will transform. This is another example of what I sometimes try to describe as the fact that the process of learning the Dharma is the process of getting pieces of the puzzle. Then, our task is to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The more pieces that we can put together, the larger the picture we get. These pieces fit together in many ways, not just one. Another piece of the tantra puzzle concerns the functions of the Buddha Bodies. The Form Bodies fulfill the purposes of others and the Dharmakaya fulfills the purposes of self. 

We can begin to think about this in so-called “analytical meditation.” This is what gets us very far in our understanding and practice – to analyze, discern and try to figure out what our practice is all about. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that analytical meditation is the main type of meditation we need to do, and what he always does himself. 

We need some concentration, that’s true, but that is not the main thing that brings progress on the path. It is merely a tool and that will develop. We don’t need to wait until we get perfect concentration before we can gain understanding. Concentration needs to be with some understanding. It is not just concentration for its own sake. A musician or an athlete can concentrate. A lion stalking an antelope can concentrate. A child playing a video game can concentrate. However, understanding is what gets rid of ignorance. 

We want to help others with these Form Bodies. This is the only reason for arising in a physical form. It is to fulfill the benefits and aims of others. We are arising in this form because it provides a method for others to overcome suffering and reach enlightenment. That is their sole purpose and the purpose, as well, for our enlightening activity. I prefer to call it “enlightening influence” because a Buddha doesn’t actually have to do anything. Like the sun, a Buddha exerts this enlightening influence in many ways – to quiet things down, to stimulate things to grow, to get things under control, and to forcefully stop harmful actions. These are the four types of influence that we will want to exert.

By the way, for the term “visualization,” imagination is a much better way of translating it. It is not just visual. It is with all the senses, emotions and everything. We imagine that we have this enlightening influence. We have all these arms and legs and faces because they are a graphic representation of all the things that we want to weave together and that others will need to weave together. We are not generating ourselves in the Form Body of a Buddha for our own sake, or for our own benefit. We are generating it for the benefit of others. That is something to think about and then it is not so weird, actually. 

Just as we think we can benefit from meditating with these figures, everybody can benefit from them. People are different and we need to be able to have different figures with different numbers of arms and legs and faces, because there are so many things that need to be woven together. 

For example, there are the 37 factors or practices that lead to liberation or enlightenment that are divided over the five paths, such as the path of accumulation or building up and so on. They are shared in common by Hinayana, Mahayana and all schools. How do we keep them in mind? We can do that by visualizing ourselves as a figure such as Vajrabhairava, also called Yamantaka, that has 34 arms plus body, speech and mind, representing these 37 factors. With Vajrayogini practice, we could have 36 dakinis in a circle around one in the middle, making 37. When we represent these various points in a graphic form, we need to keep in mind, it helps others, not only ourselves but everybody, to practice like this. This is what others will need, these 37 practices. We also have the 37 bodhisattva practices parallel to that. We want to arise in this form for the benefit of others so that they can use it as a method and, of course, in the process we are using it as a method too. Remember, with tantra we are imagining ourselves already on the resultant level, not the pathway level, even though doing so is a pathway level. Let’s think about this for a few moments.