Working with Our Buddha-Nature Factors in Tantra

The Buddha-Nature Factors

Going from the basis level to the resultant level through the pathway level in tantra involves working with our Buddha-nature factors. Let’s look at what they are.

There are evolving factors and abiding factors, as they are called. The evolving factors are those things that will change and transform into the Buddha Bodies. They change from moment to moment, and they can evolve. These evolving factors are our network of positive force, which can give rise to the Form Bodies, and our network of deep awareness, which can give rise to the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, the omniscient mind of a Buddha. 

Although the Form Bodies and omniscient mind of a Buddha changes from moment to moment, their conventional and deepest natures never change, but is looking at them from another angle. Nonetheless, Buddha does things all the time and things change from moment to moment. Buddha’s omniscient mind deals with different things at different times, so we have to say that the mind of a Buddha is also changing moment to moment. However, its nature always stays the same. 

The Network of Positive Force

The positive force built up in our network of positive force – the so-called “collection of merit” – comes from the constructive things that we have done. That positive force can be samsara-building, or, with the appropriate dedication, it can be liberation-building or enlightenment-building. 

If we dedicate, with labored bodhichitta, the positive force from doing something constructive and beneficial, that positive force is a facsimile of an actual enlightenment-builder. The real thing, the actual pure enlightenment-builder, is positive force dedicated with unlabored bodhichitta. “Unlabored” means that we are so familiar with bodhichitta that we don’t need to go through a line of reasoning to generate it. Building up to bodhichitta with equanimity, distinguishing everybody as having been my mother, and so on is labored. “Labored,” then, means that we have to go through each step, stage by stage, and, with labor, work up to generating a state of bodhichitta. 

Unlabored bodhichitta means we are mindful of our bodhichitta instantly, without having to build up to it with one of the methods, like this seven-part cause and effect meditation. When we have attained unlabored bodhichitta, we have attained the first of the five so-called “paths,” or pathway minds. The positive force that we build up by our constructive behavior from now on is enlightenment-building. 

We want our network of positive force not to work with its default setting of just ripening to improve samsara, which is its basis level of operation. And we certainly don’t want our negative force to produce a horrible samsara for us. We want to have our network of positive force at least to be a facsimile enlightenment-builder, which it becomes when we have labored bodhichitta and the appropriate dedication. We work from there to get it to be an actual enlightenment-builder one with unlabored bodhichitta.

Note that we don’t need shamatha and we don’t need non-conceptual cognition of voidness to have an actual, pure enlightenment-building network of positive force. All we need, in addition to unlabored bodhichitta, is conceptual cognition of voidness and some level of concentration. Non-conceptual cognition of voidness and shamatha are things that we attain further on the path. It is possible that we will have attained shamatha before unlabored bodhichitta, but it is not obligatory for starting to build up these pure enlightenment-building networks. It is important to see where the various Dharma attainments fit on the path. 

Our enlightenment-building network of positive force is what will give rise to the Form Bodies of a Buddha, just as it ordinarily gives rise, without dedication, to our samsaric experience of a body, what we encounter, how we respond to it, our feelings of happiness and unhappiness, and so on. All of these are coming from the karmic aftermath in our network of positive force.

The Network of Deep Awareness

The network of deep awareness is built up from focusing on the four noble truths, the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths, and the voidness of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. This is rather complicated. The actual pure enlightenment-building network of deep awareness is built up when our cognition of them is non-conceptual, which we attain with a seeing pathway mind, the so-called “path of seeing,” which is the third of the five pathway minds to enlightenment. That means that we already have unlabored bodhichitta. Our facsimile enlightenment-building network of deep awareness is when our cognition of these is conceptual. 

It’s really important to understand what we mean by the voidness of the four noble truths, each of which has four aspects. This is what we are focusing on with these five pathway minds. It’s the real thing practice.

The four noble truths are talking about the mind, our mental continuum of mental activity. With mental activity, we experience suffering, true suffering. True suffering is not just tainted happiness and unhappiness but the recurring basis for feeling both tainted happiness and unhappiness. This is samsara. The true cause of it is our compulsive behavior driven by compulsive disturbing emotions and ignorance, or unawareness. This is experienced with the mental activity of our mental continuum. True stoppings are the pure unstained nature of the mind. The true path, or pathway mind, is the understanding that will bring about the true stoppings. 

The voidness of the four noble truths, then, from one point of view, is the voidness of the mind and of a separate, concrete, findable “me” that are experiencing these four. It is not that there is some separate, independently existing “me” that is suffering, who is ignorant and acting in some compulsive, stupid way, and who will experience enlightenment and develops the wisdom and understanding that brings that about. The four noble truths are experienced by the mental continuum devoid of some impossible “me” that is experiencing the whole thing. The mind is void of a “me” that is experiencing. It is not that there is a “me” sitting in my head, and here is the mind, the machine, and “me” is pressing the buttons and then there is experience. It is not like that.

Then there is the voidness of true suffering itself, the voidness of the true causes of suffering, the voidness of the true stoppings and the voidness of the true pathway understanding. All of this is what we are focusing on to build up a network of deep awareness. 

The Five Types of Deep Awareness

For building up a pure enlightenment-building network of deep awareness, then, we focus on the voidness of the four noble truths – of the mind and the “me” that is experiencing them and the actual content of the four, each with four aspects. On the resultant level, this pure network will give rise to the omniscient mind of a Buddha. But there is also another aspect of deep awareness that also, when pure, will transform into the omniscient mind of a Buddha and this refers to the five types of deep awareness. They can also be considered evolving Buddha-nature factors. The five are sometimes translated as the five “Buddha wisdoms,” and, on the pathway and resultant stages, they are represented by the five so-called “Dhyani Buddhas,” which is a Western invented term, not an Indian term. 

These five types of deep awareness describe how our mental activity works, also on the basis, pathway and resultant levels. We all have mirror-like awareness, with which we take in information. Equalizing awareness enables us to see things equally as all apples, all dogs, or all equal objects of compassion. Individualizing awareness is the ability to see the individuality of things. It is not all one big soup. Accomplishing awareness enables us to do something with something, to have some sort of engagement. Then there is dharmadhatu awareness of the sphere of reality, which is deep awareness of what something conventionally is and what its deepest nature is. 

Our minds work with these five all the time but, of course, on the basis level, the five are mixed with confusion. When mixed with confusion, then instead of individualizing deep awareness, for instance, we have an attitude of “This one is special; I have to have it.” We develop greed, attachment, and desire. Instead of equalizing awareness, we get the attitude, “I’m better than you and I don’t want to share what I have.” We get arrogance, pride, and miserliness. These five types of awareness get distorted into the disturbing emotions. 

This is what is going on at the basis level and we don’t want that. We want to have the five so-called “Buddha wisdoms,” instead – these five types of deep awareness that are represented, on the pathway level, by the five colored lights and the five colored different figures in the mandala we visualize. 

The Abiding Buddha-Nature Factors

In addition to these evolving Buddha-nature factors, we also have the abiding Buddha-nature factors. They abide, which means they always stay the same, without changing or growing. This refers to the void nature of the mind that allows for this transformation and, in many commentaries, also the conventional nature of the mind that gives rise to mental holograms and cognitive engagements. These are what allow the transformation of the networks into the changing Buddha Bodies. With enlightenment, these two natures continue to abide as the Essential Nature Body of a Buddha, the Svabhavakaya.


There is a third Buddha-nature factor, and this refers to the feature of the mental continuum that it can be uplifted, it can be inspired. Unfortunately, this word that I translate as “inspiration” is often translated as “blessing.” This mixes in all sorts of inappropriate associations, such as the mind being blessed by the holy gurus, and that is not at all the flavor of what we are talking about. We are discussing inspiration – the mental continuum being uplifted, brightened, and heightened. These are all the connotations that are there in this word, “inspiration.” 

One way in which our minds get inspired and uplifted is through a healthy relationship with a fully qualified spiritual teacher and with guru-yoga, where we imagine our good qualities of our guru merging with our own, uplifting and heightening them. 

What is the recommended healthy attitude that we need to have toward our spiritual teacher? We need to know that. It isn’t devotional in the sense of, “Lama, Lama, save me. Tell me what to do; I am your slave.” It is not that. The proper attitude has two factors. The first is firm conviction in the good qualities of the teacher. It is based on having thoroughly examined the teacher and their qualities and found them to be good qualities that we would like to achieve ourselves. The second attitude is appreciation of their kindness to help us by teaching us and showing us the way. Based on these two attitudes, we have incredible respect for our teacher. That is the state of mind that we need in the relationship in order to be able to entrust ourselves to their guidance.

As it says in the classic texts, we are hardly ever going to find a teacher with all good qualities, but we need one that has at least more good qualities than negative ones. There is no benefit in focusing on their negative qualities, such as not having enough time for us. Complaining just depresses us, so, without denying any shortcomings our teacher might have, it is better to focus on their good qualities. That is what will inspire us. Our mental activity can be uplifted and inspired like that to higher and brighter levels.

Another place where our mental activity gets uplifted is during an empowerment, an initiation. The ambience and environment of the initiation is inspiring, as is the presence of the tantric master, whom we visualize in the form of the Buddha-figure along with everything around us as the mandala. We are also visualizing ourselves in these enlightening forms and that, too, is inspiring.  

The whole point is that our evolving Buddha-nature factors can be activated through inspiration. We have a tremendous number of tendencies, potentials and so on, and many of the positive ones are dormant or weak right now. The initiation empowers them in the sense of activating them to grow, so long as we have the appropriate state of mind and are not just sitting there like a zombie. 

During the initiation, more seeds are planted, figuratively, into our two networks. The Sanskrit term for an initiation, “abhisheka,” means the sprinkling of seeds. The Tibetan term for it, “wang,” means empowerment. We also gain some conscious experience during the empowerment. This is what one of the great Drikung Kagyu masters said. To receive the empowerment, we need to have some conscious experience – some feeling of voidness with a blissful mind, even if it’s just on the level of being happy to be at the empowerment and the idea that nothing exists solidly, not this solid “me” nor a solid “you.” It is not that I’m a solidly existing poor little worm down here and you are the solidly existing almighty guru up there. It’s none of that. This conscious experience and the presence of the guru and the atmosphere, etc., are what are uplifting. This all fits into Buddha-nature, in that these networks can be given a boost, in a sense, from inspiration. This is wonderful.


What we want, then, on the path, is for our two enlightenment-building networks, on the basis of the nature of the mind, to give rise to these Buddha-figures, instead of just more and more suffering in samsara. With compassion and bodhichitta, we generate these Buddha-figures representing our not-yet-happening enlightenment. They can only arise on the basis of the voidness of the mind and the conventional nature of the mind. Wishing to enable others to follow this path as well, we weave everything together. 

Eventually, as a Buddha, we will be able to guide everyone to enlightenment. For now, we focus on having the qualities of a Buddha that we are intent on attaining: an enlightening body that never tires or grows old, an enlightening speech that communicates perfectly to everyone as represented by mantras, an enlightening mind that has cognition of the two truths and bodhichitta, and an enlightening activity that exerts an enlightening influence on everyone. The colored lights represent this enlightening influence. This activity includes making offerings and benefitting everyone, giving them a pure environment and all the other purities. 

Visualizing a Mandala and All the Figures in It

Another point to bring up is about mandalas, which is the palace we visualize we are in and the pure environment around it. This entire visualization is the basis for imputation of “me,” not just the central figure or, if it is a couple, not just the main figure of the couple. We are both members of the couple and we are all the other figures too, as well as the mandala palace that we are all in. 

If we think about that, then of course, on the basis level, we are not just a digestive system and not just a respiratory system. We are made up of many different parts and interacting systems. Like this, all the figures in the mandala represent the various elements and aggregates of the body, the sensory objects we perceive, the motion of our arms and legs – all of that. The parts of the building, the four gateways for instance, represent the four placements of close mindfulness, the five layers of the walls are the five types of deep awareness and so on. Everything represents something. This is how infographics work.

When doing these visualizations, we imagine that “me” is an imputation phenomenon on the basis of the whole thing. Otherwise, we can get into the weird trip of imagining a solid “me” as just one side of the couple, but then who is this other side? If we are both members of the couple, then what is the point of view when we visualize? Are we looking from the viewpoint of the direction the main figure is facing and can only see in front of us, or are we looking in the other direction from the viewpoint of the partner? And what if we have four faces, one in each direction? It is none of those. Visualization is not talking about seeing things with our eyes, but rather with our minds. It is an incredible opening of the mind to imagine we are the whole thing.

For instance, how are we aware of what our faces look like and from what point of view? Is it from inside our heads, or looking in a mirror, or the viewpoint of someone opposite looking at us? It can start to get pretty weird when we start to think how we visualize our face. Imagine when we have three faces or four faces! But there are methods to learn how to do all of this.

For example, we can put our hand on our face and take it away. Can we feel a face? Yes, we can. We can be aware of a face. Then, put it on the side of our head. Can we be aware of the side of our head? Yes, we can, and we can imagine that a face is there and the same with the back of our head. We can also put our hand on the top of our head and then take it away. Can we be aware of the top of our head? Sure, we can. There is Vajrasattva at the top of our head. There are many ways to learn.

Can we be aware that we are in a room with four walls and that there is a wall behind us? Do we see it with eyes? No, but are we aware that there is a wall behind us? Yes, we can be aware of that. This is how we work with visualizations. It is training the imagination, and this is what is going on with tantra where “me,” with which we hold the so-called “pride of the deity,” is an imputation phenomenon on the whole visualization. 

We also imagine that now, as a Buddha, we have all this in mind. In addition, we imagine emanating lights, nectars and tiny Buddha-figures and benefiting others, making offerings, and building up more positive force. The visualizations are vast.  

Tantra Weaves All of Dharma into a Whole

What we have discussed so far is something vast and profound to think about. Take a moment to let a little bit of it sink in. We have covered an enormous number of topics and it isn’t easy, or even possible, perhaps, to really digest it all and keep it all in mind. However, I think one of the main points to take away from what we have covered is a sense of how tantra weaves together all the sutra points of the Dharma. It is a way of putting it all together and working with the whole thing. What is the conclusion? We can’t possibly do it effectively unless we have put a great deal of effort into the sutra teachings, the shared preparatory practices − those shared between sutra and tantra. 

Without that, what are we doing? We are just going on some fantasy trip. As I have explained, if we are not there yet and we don’t have all the pieces, we need to gain the pieces of the puzzle that we can weave together on the loom of tantra. Until then, we can use whatever is easily usable from the tantra practices. This includes mantra recitation, having a little bit more positive self-image, and imagining a Buddha-figure in front of us and gaining inspiration from it. We can focus on the good qualities of a spiritual teacher who actually has these good qualities and appreciate the kindness of such a teacher in teaching us. In turn, we can help the teacher in whatever way we can to enable them to better help others. This uplifts, inspires and builds up more positive force. As a community, we can build up more positive force by helping each other and by being kind toward each other.

In short, don’t minimize how sophisticated and advanced tantra is. Have respect for it. To practice tantra effectively it is important to have respect for it, to understand how it actually works and what makes it so profound. Then, we can have respect for ourselves who are practicing it. Tantra is not magic or just some exotic trip but rather an incredibly sophisticated system.  

Recognize the Most Essential Aspects of the Practice

The other thing to watch out for is that we can become fascinated by the details, which can be seductive. Then, we can get hung up on things like what jewelry Avalokiteshvara is wearing and things like that. Then, all we care about are the little details of the visualizations and we lose the big picture of what we are doing. Serkong Rinpoche used to characterize this with a ridiculous question asked by a Westerner, “Does Dorje Palmo have a belly button?” Come on; that is not the point of the practice. With mandalas and Buddha-figures, especially when we get into something as complicated and as incredibly beautiful, elaborate, fascinating and intricate as Kalachakra, we can get completely side-tracked into worrying about all the tiny little details. 

As Tsongkhapa said regarding how to meditate on a mandala, get the whole thing going in general. It is not going to be clear, and we are not going to have all the details. That’s okay. Then, as our concentration improves, our rough visualization will become more and more in focus. The important point is to turn away from ordinary appearances, ordinary appearance-making and ordinary clinging to them to be self-established and truly existent as they deceptively appear to be. Renounce and turn away from that, understanding that the mandala is not self-established at all. Have something pure as the object of focus, even if it is just lights. 

Have something pure and not our ordinary appearance-making and set what is known as the “pride of the deity.” This term means setting the entire visualization as the basis for imputation of “me”; however, to be able to do this correctly implies that we understand what it means. It is neither an absolutist nor a nihilist position. Conventionally, there is “me,” but not a “me” that is findable, established independently of merely being what the word and concept “me” refer to. This is the only way to establish that there is such a thing as “me” and that it functions. We can’t establish it from the side of something findable in each of a series of pictures of ourselves spanning our life, for example. Nevertheless, we can correctly identify them all as pictures of “me,” and this could be corroborated by those who have known us throughout our lives. These are not pictures of no one. 

Similarly, the form of the deity that we have not yet attained, but which we are representing with our visualization, is also a valid basis for the imputation of “me” and on which to validly hold this pride of the deity. It is a representation of the enlightened state that we are aiming to achieve. It has not yet happened but can happen based on our Buddha-nature factors and bodhichitta. Remember, we are visualizing ourselves like this to fulfill the aims of others. These are forms that will benefit others as well if they visualize themselves as them and practice with them. 

It is difficult enough to do all that. As I pointed out before, don’t get hung up on all the details of the visualization; otherwise, it becomes an obstacle. For example, we can’t visualize all the figures on the guru tree, and then we get discouraged and we don’t even do our prostrations or whatever because we are too hung up on the figures on the tree. Just put something there to represent the objects of refuge, generate the state of mind of taking refuge, and then make prostrations. In short, always recognize the most essential aspects of the practice. Focus on that and the rest will come with practice and familiarity.

Let’s let this sink in. As I said, what we should take away from this discussion is that everything does fit together in tantra. The more pieces we can fit together, the more profound it becomes.

[Pause for contemplation]

A Daily Practice Grows Over a Lifetime

Also, because it is so complex, and because there are so many layers and levels of what is involved with tantra practice, then when we take a commitment to do a daily practice for the rest of our lives, the Real-Thing tantra, then actually it is not so bad. It’s not that it becomes boring. Over a lifetime of practicing, then with more and more familiarity, more and more things can be added into it making our practice fuller. As we continue working with sutra material, with bodhichitta, voidness and with the six far-reaching attitudes, which are the six arms of some figures and so on, our practice can always be new and fresh. 

It will take more than a lifetime to be able to master all these things. Don’t get discouraged. It is samsara and it goes up and down. Sometimes meditation goes well, sometimes it’s horrible; sometimes we have tons of mental wandering, sometimes less. Just persevere. It doesn’t matter; just do it. It takes discipline, self-discipline, patience, the generosity of giving our time to the practice, concentration, and discriminating awareness to have some understanding of what we are doing. These are the six paramitas, or perfections. All of this is put together, and thus we have tantra.

Questions and Answers

Can you say something about the psychology of the wrathful forms? For example, can you say something on appreciation for a wrathful teacher?

First of all, again, we need to look at the translation and connotation of the word. “Wrathful” means that they are really angry and disturbed, and I don’t think that is the intention. I prefer to translate the term as “forceful.” When we visualize ourselves as one of these forceful figures, we are saying, “Stop acting like a baby! Get yourself together! Stop being so selfish!” This is being forceful with ourselves. We stomp on all these figures that represent our disturbing emotions, “Trample them!” There is this forceful aspect, which says, “Cut through all the crap! Get real. Burst the balloon of fantasies about how everything is going to be so nice and wonderful.” 

Being forceful when needed is one of the Buddha activities and exerts an enlightening influence. When things are really tough, we need to be forceful and strongly energetic. This isn’t anger or wrath. Knowing the connotations of words is very helpful.

As for a forceful teacher, Naropa, for example, said that being hit by his teacher Tilopa was the most incredible, compassionate teaching he could receive. Another example is with my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche. I was with him and served him as translator and foreign secretary arranging all his trips and so on for nine years. During that time, he only thanked me twice. All that time, his favorite name for me was “idiot” and he mercilessly pointed out whenever I acted like an idiot – which I did quite frequently. But I had given him permission beforehand to do that, since I told him to make a donkey of a person like me into a human being, to use the classic formula for such a request. Making such a request is only done with the understanding that I would never get angry with him.

He was very forceful with me but also incredibly kind to train me in the classical way. I came to him as an arrogant young man who didn’t know how to get along well with others. I had been a top student at the top university in America, Harvard. To temper my pride, it was very helpful for him to point out what an idiot I was and probably still am. Praising me all the time wouldn’t have helped at all and would have made things worse. As for thanking me all the time, I wasn’t helping him to be thanked, to get a pat on the head and wag my tail. I was doing it to help him help others, period. 

Being forceful with me was very effective. He wasn’t like that with others. For people who have low self-esteem, we don’t want to be forceful and point out that they are acting like idiots even if they are. We want to help them increase their self-confidence. However, for someone with arrogance, we need to deflate their pride. Really qualified teachers are able to do that but not people who are called “teachers” but who still have a lot of disturbing emotions. When qualified teachers are with various people – and being a translator affords the chance to see how totally different they are with each person – they are following the example of Buddha using skillful methods designed individually for each person who comes. 

However, before we entrust ourselves to a spiritual teacher, we need to check out the person very well because there are many who are abusive, who are not qualified and pretend to be teachers. That is why we need to really check out the teacher first and not just get into this dreamy-eyed thing of thinking that they are all Buddhas and whatever they do is enlightening or “crazy wisdom.” That is no excuse.

There is a famous example, at a Western teachers conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama many years ago when these scandals of sexual abuse by teachers were first coming out publicly. What was suggested by one of the people there was, pardon the language, “the shit test.” If such teachers are really so highly developed with “crazy wisdom,” then they should be able to transform feces, urine, pus, vomit and blood into nectar. Give them a plate of that and see if they can eat it. Otherwise, they are abusive. His Holiness was quite amused.

You talked about how one could get lost in the fascination about all the details. I had the exact opposite reaction when I was first introduced to Vajrasattva and all the details, long mantras, colors and prostrations and I really backed out. This seemed just too much. I had been trying to empty myself of such things and not take them into my life. Some of this reaction is still with me. I’ve had various initiations, but I have never been able to really practice with the yidams. Then, at a particular time, I came to a practice of refuge, not just the outer refuge of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, but it was an inner refuge, in the stillness of the body, the silence of the speech, and the spaciousness of the mind. In this, I felt I could do some of the practice of realizing the Buddha-nature in me, being reminded of this inner refuge instead of all the details. Could you comment on this?

Yes, one can have either fascination with the details or horror at all the details. This is why I was saying that I find Tsongkhapa’s advice very helpful to just focus on something very general, a white light or something like that. It doesn’t have to be with details. The essence of Vajrasattva is not his jewelry. It is the state of mind of the four opponent forces: acknowledging the mistake of what we have done, regret, trying not to repeat it, etc. This is what Vajrasattva practice is about. 

We don’t want to get hung up on either fascination or horror at the details. Then, as we progress, since life is complex, the practices are complex to enable us to deal with compexity. It is not that everything is simple. It’s not. If we look at life, there are so many things going on, so many people, and everybody has their own problems. We want to be able to help everybody. It’s unbelievably complicated. 

This doesn’t mean that we jump into the whole thing all at once. It is important to have a quiet mind, the spaciousness, and the ability to acknowledge that spaciousness. However, just the spaciousness is not enough. There are still disturbing emotions and disturbing thoughts that will come up. Just quieting down is not an opponent to stop them from recurring. The opponent is to understand voidness, that the way that we imagine things to exist does not correspond to reality. It isn’t that inherently we are a terrible person or that we are inherently this or that. All of that has to be cleared up with correct understanding, and then the spaciousness that comes from that clearing out enables us to fully develop all our good qualities, even with complex tantra practice. 

Again, don’t get hung up on the details. Nonetheless, there are details, and life is complicated. As we gradually grow, we are able to deal with more and more complexities in life. Children deal with fairy tales and very simple things. They don’t have to deal with how to run a large business or how to raise a family. They are just playing; they just play house. Then, gradually, they have more and more responsibility and more detail comes.

Therefore, I think that the approach that you are taking is good and helpful, but you can go further from there. You need to work on not being horrified by the details. They are there, but they’re not the essence.