This article looks at whether there is any difference between visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure and imagining that we’re Mickey Mouse. It might sound funny, but often when we’re involved with tantra practice, we reach a certain stage where we question what we’re doing. We work with fantastic visualizations, which, if we don’t have a good foundation, can start to seem crazy. Especially if we tell others about what we’re doing, it might come across as, “I’m imagining that I’m the Red Fairy, and I’m going to Fairyland, and I’m going to take everybody with me!” They’d probably want to lock us up! So, here we’ll look at this topic of Buddha-figures and Mickey Mouse in some depth.
Imagining Ourselves as a Buddha-Figure
One of the most characteristic features of tantra is what we call “deity-yoga,” where we imagine ourselves to be a Buddha-figure. The term is usually translated as “visualize” instead of imagine, although we’re not just dealing with some visual picture of ourselves. I think the word “imagine” is great because we imagine that we really are a Buddha in the form of this figure. Not only do we imagine looking like this figure, but we also imagine speaking, thinking, helping others and experiencing pure enjoyment with all our senses like it does. We also imagine having all its good qualities, such as equal love and compassion for all beings and deep understanding of everything. Of course, to do this successfully we need to have trained beforehand in each of these qualities with sutra practice. Putting them all together with deity-yoga, then, is like a dress rehearsal for actually being a Buddha. By rehearsing now, we build up powerful causes for attaining enlightenment. This extremely efficient method is known as “practicing causes that are the most similar to the result.”
What I’m translating as “Buddha-figure” is the Tibetan word “yidam,” sometimes called a “special type of deity” – it’s not your usual deity, though, like one of the Hindu or Greek gods. But, like a deity, these figures have extraordinary qualities far beyond what we as ordinary humans have. The Tibetan word “yidam” literally means a figure with which we create a close bond for our minds. We make a strong bond with a particular Buddha-figure in order to actually become a Buddha with the physical form of that figure. The figure may be male, such as Avalokiteshvara (in Tibetan, Chenrezig), female such as Tara, or even a couple, such as Kalachakra.
Our question, then, is what’s the difference between tantric practitioners imagining themselves as a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure or delusional persons imagining they are Mickey Mouse?
Refuge and Ethical Behavior
First of all, as tantric practitioners – we’re talking about authentic ones, those who are doing it properly – we have a safe direction in life (this is usually called “refuge”). What does this mean? First of all, it means that we have a realistic view of the four noble truths:
- We recognize what are the true sufferings.
- We know the true causes of these sufferings.
- We see that a true stopping of the causes is possible to attain.
- We understand the true pathway minds that will bring about this about.
The deepest Dharma Jewel or Dharma refuge is the true stoppings and true pathways of mind – the third and fourth noble truths. The Buddhas are those in whose mental continuum the true stoppings and pathway minds are present in full. The Arya Sangha is the community of those in whom these two exist in part – some of them are there, but not the full extent of them.
So, as Buddhist tantric practitioners, we have put a positive meaning – a safe direction – into our lives. We recognize the various problems we have and their causes, and we’re practicing methods that will bring about a true stopping of those causes, and thus the problems themselves. We know full well that there’s a way out of suffering, and so we’re very secure in what we’re doing. We also know that we’re not alone, but there are others working in the same direction and those who have actually achieved these goals, both in full and in part.
When going in this safe and meaningful direction, the first thing we do is to refrain from destructive behavior, because it brings about unhappiness and the so-called “suffering of suffering.” As tantric practitioners, then, we engage in ethical behavior, either in our imaginations or in daily life, while imagining ourselves as Buddhas in the form of Buddha-figures. We do this, seeing that the causes for all the problems and suffering we have are internal. They’re caused by our compulsive, destructive karmic behavior, driven by our disturbing emotions, and deriving from our unawareness and confusion about the effect of our behavior and about reality. This is what we have to work to get over; and all of this can be gotten rid of, forever.
Delusional persons, on the other hand, normally look for a scapegoat for their problems. They blame it on their parents, or on society, becoming paranoid. They don’t recognize that what they do – namely their behavior – will affect their future and what they experience. Usually, if someone thinks that they’re Mickey Mouse, it’s not with the intention to use this as a framework for ethical behavior, or to achieve liberation and enlightenment free from all problems.
The next difference concerns what we call “renunciation,” which is the determination to be free from our problems and their causes, both in this life and in all future lives. It entails, of course, being willing to give up the problems and their causes.
Some people might object and say, “Well, isn’t this just escapism? Escaping reality by just renouncing this life or the conditions of life in general?” The answer is no, it’s not escapism at all. Renunciation is to see ordinary life for exactly what it is. We’re born, we get sick, we grow old, and we die; in between that, we don’t get what we want and we meet with things we don’t want. Even when things are going well, we feel frustrated, never satisfied. We always want more. Everything is changing all the time – it’s completely unstable.
With renunciation, we take all these problems seriously, generating a strong feeling of “I’ve had enough. I don’t want to continue to accept all of this. I will seek a solution.” We’ll already have the foundation of a safe direction, and so we’ll be confident that there is a solution to our problems. There is a way out because we can get rid of their true causes and them forever. We turn away from being totally involved with just the meaningless things of this and future lives, turning toward this safe direction. In this way, we work for the true stoppings and true pathway minds that lead to liberation and enlightenment as a constructive way to face and solve our problems.
Delusional persons who imagine that they’re Mickey Mouse are really just escaping from life. They’re not facing their problems, but rather escaping into another reality that is totally unrelated to their lives. Tantric visualizations are methods to deal with our ordinary lives in a creative and constructive fashion, while delusional persons don’t deal with their lives at all.
Buddha-Figure Forms as Precursors for the Form of a Buddha
Now, we might ask, aren’t imagining ourselves as Mickey Mouse or as a Buddha in the form of Avalokiteshvara both equally delusional? Again, no, there’s a big difference.
In tantra practice, we imagine things that have not yet happened – in other words, things that we have not yet experienced as actually occurring – but which we will be able to experience happening on the basis of what are known as our “Buddha-nature factors.” These factors are parts of our mental continuums and all of us have them. Our mental continuum is the unbroken sequence of consecutive moments of our experiencing things.
For instance, every child has the Buddha-nature factors of a physical form, the ability to communicate, to know things, do things, and enjoy things, and various good qualities, like love and intelligence, though not fully developed. As a child, we can imagine ourselves looking like an adult and speaking, thinking, understanding, acting and enjoying things like one, and also having a grown-up’s mature good qualities. Although our actually being an adult is not presently happening – it’s a “not-yet-happening” occurrence – nevertheless, our imagining being an adult can be presently happening. This is because our presently-happening child’s body and so on can evolve into those of an adult. We do something similar in tantra.
When we imagine ourselves as appearing, speaking and so on like one of these Buddha-figures, we know that our actually being a Buddha appearing in this form is not presently happening. It is a not-yet-happening occurrence. We are just a limited being imagining now that we’re appearing in this form. But we have full conviction that, with a strong enough build-up of our networks of positive force and deep awareness (collections of merit and wisdom) dedicated to achieving enlightenment, our being a Buddha in the form of this Buddha-figure will eventually be something presently happening. We have all the working materials; they just need to be purified and cultivated further.
Delusional people certainly don’t think they have all the factors now that will enable them to become Mickey Mouse in the future, and that they’re just pretending now to be Mickey. They think they really are Mickey Mouse.
Multiple Faces, Arms and Legs
We might then object, “But isn't it delusional to imagine we have so many faces, arms and legs? Avalokiteshvara has four arms and Kalachakra has 24? Isn’t that just as crazy as thinking that we’re Mickey Mouse?”
No, it's not. All these arms, faces and legs represent different aspects of the spiritual path – all of the things we need to realize and attain for becoming a Buddha. Avalokiteshvara’s four arms, for instance, represent the four immeasurable attitudes of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. Imagining ourselves as having four arms, then, is a skillful means to train ourselves to keep in mind and stay mindful of the four immeasurable attitudes that they represent – and all four of them simultaneously in an integrated fashion. It's precisely because these multi-limbed forms are skillful means for helping people attain enlightenment that Buddhas manifest in them. As tantric practitioners, then, we can likewise imagine ourselves as appearing in them as a tool to help both ourselves and all others on the path to enlightenment. We’re certainly not practicing with them to become a circus freak!
Transforming Our Self-Image
To imagine ourselves as a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure is to overcome our ordinary appearance and our grasping at ourselves as existing in an ordinary way. In other words, to practice them seriously, we need to give up our deluded, ordinary self-image of being someone who is truly and unchangeably like this or like that. No one exists like that, because it’s impossible.
Our ordinary appearance and self-image are not restricted to what we look like. “Appearance,” here, means what appears, what arises. What we look like, say, think, feel and understand, and what qualities we have, like selfishness or compassion, all arise and appear. The ordinary forms of these all constitute our ordinary appearance, and the aspects of them that we identify with as being the “real me” constitute our ordinary self-image. These are what we purify and transform with tantra.
It makes no difference whether our ordinary self-image is a negative one or a positive one. We may think of ourselves as an ugly, fat, horrible person and no one loves us, or as an eternal beautiful youth and God’s gift to the world. In either case, we feel that we really are like this, and we always will be, no matter what. In Buddhist jargon, we grasp onto this self-image as our “true identity”; we grasp onto it as who we “really” are. We need to overcome that ordinary grasping.
When we replace this ordinary appearance and self-image in tantra with a “pure” appearance of a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure, we also replace our ordinary grasping to it as our true identity. We replace the confusion of that grasping with the clear understanding of the voidness of ourselves and of all appearances, self-images and identities. Voidness, often translated as “emptiness,” means the total absence of ourselves and of any appearance existing and being established in some impossible way – and remember, “appearance,” here, refers to an appearance of ourselves as a horrible ugly, fat person, as God’s gorgeous gift to the world, or as a Avalokiteshvara or Tara.
We realize that any solid self-image we may have, whether ordinary or pure, is deluded. That’s because there is no such thing as a concrete, unchanging true identity – the type of person we “really” are, self-established by the power of something concrete, findable inside us and independently of anything else. The type of person we are, our appearance and so on arise dependently on a huge array of causes, conditions, parts and mental labels. And because these causes and conditions are constantly changing, our physical appearance, what we say and do, and so on are also constantly changing. But it’s not that there’s the real “me” inside, always solidly the same no matter what I look like on the surface or what I do; and it’s certainly not that there’s a solid, findable “me” existing without any appearance. The fact is, there isn't a solidly existing “me” at all, regardless of what appearance we might imagine that it has.
Differentiating the False “Me” from the Conventional “Me”
As a tantric practitioner, we differentiate between what’s known as the false “me” and the conventional “me.” Basically, we do exist (the conventional “me”), but we don’t exist in the manner of a false “me,” which is a pure fantasy of delusion and doesn't correspond to anything real.
Conventionally, “me” is something that changes all the time and is imputed on an individual, unbroken continuum of the arising of appearances – appearances of objects, feelings, emotions, thoughts and of doing, saying and thinking things. It’s imputed on both the arising and the subjective experiencing of these appearances, as well as on the appearances themselves. These are all inseparable. For simplicity sake, let's just speak of the conventional “me” as something imputed on an individual continuum of appearances of a body, speech and mind.
What does being “something imputed” mean? Consider the example of motion. Motion is something imputed dependently on an object located in an individual continuum of sequential positions. We can all see the motion of a moving object, but this motion can’t be found as some concrete “thing” inside that object in any one position. That doesn't mean, however, that there is no such thing as motion. Conventionally, there is motion, but we just can't pinpoint it in any object in one moment of time and, after all, only one moment happens at a time.
Similarly, “me” is something imputed dependently on an individual continuum of ever-changing appearances of a body, speech and mind over an entire lifetime – and over all past and future lifetimes as well. Although it is dependently imputed on such a continuum, it cannot be found as some concrete “thing” (the false “me”) inside any one moment of the appearance of a body, speech and mind. Like motion, conventionally there is such a thing as “me”; we just can't pinpoint it. It’s not in any cell of the body, in any of the body’s actions, in the sound of any word of speech, or in any thought, emotion, understanding, or elsewhere. And yet, if we ask the question, “Who’s appearing?” we would have to answer, “It’s just me!” It's not someone else and it's not nobody. This is the conventional “me.”
Now a deeper question, what establishes that that there is such a conventional thing as motion or “me”? In other words, what accounts for the fact that everyone can see both motion and me? Also nothing findable inside a moment of an object located consecutively in different locations or inside a moment of an individual continuum of the appearances of a body, speech and mind.
All we can say is that there is the concept of “motion,” with the word “motion” designated on it, that is labelled on an object in different locations in sequential moments. Conventionally, then, motion is merely what that concept and word refer to, on the basis of an object consecutively in different locations. Again, however, we still can't find that conventionally existent “motion.” But that doesn't invalidate its conventional existence or our valid perception of it.
Similarly, all we can say is that there is the concept of “me,” with the word “me” designated on it, that is labelled on an individual, beginningless and endless continuum of appearances of a body, speech and mind and the subjective experiencing of them. Conventionally, “me” is what that concept and word refer to, on the basis of such an individual continuum. And again, we still can't find that conventionally existent “me.” And likewise, that doesn't invalidate its conventional existence or our valid perception of it.
In short, whether we’re analyzing on a conventional level or on the deepest level, we can never pinpoint and find this conventional “me.” Nevertheless, when we’re not analyzing it, then yes, “Here I am. I’m sitting here. I’m talking to you.” It’s neither of the two extremes: it’s not that nobody is talking to you, and it’s not that a solidly existing false “me” sitting somewhere inside my head is talking to you, either.
As tantric practitioners, we understand all of that and practice accordingly. When we replace our ordinary appearance with that of a Buddha appearing in the form of a Buddha-figure, we deconstruct and dismiss any clinging to either our ordinary appearance or our pure appearance as being the solidly existing, false “me.” We understand that the conventional “me” is something that arises merely dependently, imputed equally on both types of appearances of a body, speech and mind, and with both equally labelled with the concept “me” and designated with the word “me.”
Delusional persons imaging they are Mickey Mouse don't understand any of that. They deny the conventional existence of themselves in their ordinary appearance and identify their false “me” with Mickey Mouse.
Now we might ask, is our conventional “me” something validly imputed equally on both our ordinary appearance and our pure appearance, and validly labelled equally on both with the concept “me” and designated equally on both with the word “me”? For simplicity sake, let's refer to all three relations as “imputation.” The simple answer to this is yes, both are valid.
The conventional “me” is something imputed on an individual continuum of moment-to-moment appearances of a body, speech and mind and the subjective experiencing of them that follow sequentially according to a causal process. Along that continuum, our conventional “me” is something validly imputed on the appearances of a body, speech and mind that are arising and being subjectively experienced right now, but it is also something validly imputed on those that arose and were experienced as a baby. That was also “me” then. Likewise, “me” is something validly imputed – if we live long enough – onto the appearances of a body, speech and mind that will arise and be subjectively experienced in old age.
Of course, we change all the time – we are certainly not the same as when we were babies – but there is a continuum of the conventional “me.” The various potentials and tendencies built up by habit on this mental continuum, in conjunction with ever-changing circumstances and conditions, bring about all these appearances. But can they actually bring about the appearance of this conventional “me” as a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure, and not just in imagination? This is our question.
To answer this, we need to look more closely at the Buddha-nature factors that are integral parts of our continuum. Some of them change all the time, while the voidness of our continuum – the fact that it doesn't truly exist as something solid, unaffected by anything – enables that change. Those factors that are constantly changing include appearing and acting with a body, communicating with speech, and thinking, feeling and understanding with a mind. In response to external circumstances, what affects internally those changes in how they appear and what they do are our networks of positive potential and deep awareness, the so-called “collections of merit and wisdom.” If we analyze more broadly how networks function, we can understand the changes more fully.
Whenever we do, say or think anything, it builds up a potential force on our mental continuum. The forces built up network together to bring about results. In accordance with circumstances, this network of potential gives rise to the appearances of our body, speech and mind and to our repeating of our previous types of physical, verbal and mental behavior. Furthermore, this potential may be positive, coming from constructive behavior such as helping someone with love and compassion, or negative, coming from destructive behavior such as yelling at someone with anger.
When this potential is not dedicated to any goal or dedicated to some worldly goal, such as becoming rich or well-liked, it gives rise to the ordinary appearances of a body, speech and mind. This is the case whether that potential is positive or negative. However, when positive potential is dedicated to attaining enlightenment, it will eventually give rise to the body, speech and mind of a Buddha. If positive potential is built up while imagining ourselves as a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure, it will eventually give rise to the body, speech and mind of a Buddha in this form.
Another crucial factor, however, is our understanding of voidness. Acting, speaking and thinking with a correct understanding of voidness builds up a network of deep awareness. On the other hand, doing these with ignorance and grasping for truly established existence builds up a tendency to repeat that grasping and a habit of grasping that prevents our enlightenment.
In tantra practice, then, we imagine ourselves as a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure acting, speaking and thinking in a positive way; and we continue imagining ourselves in this form while actually helping others. We do this with a correct understanding of voidness and dedicating the positive force to our enlightenment. Doing so builds up “enlightenment-building” networks of positive force and deep awareness. Like batteries when fully charged with potential, these networks cause our Buddha-nature factors of body, speech, and mind to give rise to appearances of them as an actual Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure and to our acting like one.
The occurrence of our actually appearing like this is something that definitely can happen when all the causes are complete, just as our appearing as an old person can definitely happen if we live long enough. In both cases, whether as an old person or as a Buddha, it will still be the conventional “me.” Because of that, it is valid to impute the conventional “me” on our not-yet-happening form as a Buddha appearing as a Buddha-figure.
In short, when we look at the factors known as “Buddha-nature,” then it’s absolutely possible that in the future we can experience being a Buddha. With tantra, we imagine that we already are Buddhas, and so we’re labelling “me” on something in our minds that represents the not-yet-happening Buddhas that we will become. We realize that we aren’t there yet, but that continuing practice will act as a cause for actually becoming a presently-happening Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure.
Now, delusional persons don’t have this at all. Delusional persons really think that they’re Mickey Mouse or Napoleon or Cleopatra, or they might even think they are Avalokiteshvara or Buddha, or Jesus Christ for that matter. We could become completely delusional, thinking that we’re a solidly existent deity or Buddha now, but this is completely crazy. We could even take it to a ridiculous level of thinking that we can walk through walls and things like that – but in the end we just smash into the wall. So to know the reality of what’s going on is absolutely crucial in tantra, because otherwise we can become crazy.
By changing from a negative to a positive self-image, we do so on the basis of understanding the reality of self-images. Instead of a negative self-image of what I am or what my characteristics are – being stupid or unable to understand anything or whatever – we change this to a positive one. We can understand, we can have clarity of mind, we are filled with compassion. We use tantra as a method to be able to actually develop these qualities, knowing full well that they’re not yet there, but that if we build up their causes, then we really can have all these qualities in full. Delusional persons don’t have any of that.
Cultivating the Dignity of Being a Buddha in the Form of a Buddha-Figure
When we talk of having the dignity or pride of the deity, this is not referring to pride or arrogance in a deluded sense. It just means that we really feel like this. To put it more clearly, let’s imagine that we are Avalokiteshvara, and we feel, “This is what I am, this is who I am,” even if we know we’re not there yet. However, as a method, we imagine that we are there already and we have the pride or dignity of being this. We label “me” on what we’re visualizing – and not just aesthetically – but it has to include all the qualities of Avalokiteshvara: infinite compassion for everybody equally.
It’s truly a wonderful method because by having this dignity – I prefer to translate “pride” as “dignity” – it prevents us from acting like an idiot or in a really cruel way. How could Avalokiteshvara not want to help this person? How could Avalokiteshvara be too tired or too busy? How could Avalokiteshvara simply not be bothered? If we have our ordinary, deluded self-image, then yes, we can’t do anything, we’re incapable. We don’t even try. But if we’re Avalokiteshvara, then even if we’re unable to help others, we’d still love to be able to help. We’ll still have compassion, the wish for you to be free of suffering and its causes. This dignity of being Avalokiteshvara prevents us from being cold-hearted and closed. It really is a fantastic, beautiful method. Delusional persons don’t have any of that.
Our Appearance as a Buddha-Figure Is Like an Illusion
Although things appear to be truly established to our unenlightened minds, nevertheless, this appearance is just like an illusion. The word “like” here is very important, because it implies that things don’t really exist in the way that they appear, just as an illusion appears real, but doesn’t correspond to anything real. Even the appearance of us as a Buddha-figure while we’re not enlightened is like an illusion. We understand this, while delusional persons actually believe the illusion. They don’t recognize that things are just like an illusion, so there is a big difference.
Another important difference is the motivation. In tantra practice, our motivation is bodhichitta, where we aim for our own future enlightenment that has not yet happened, and we do so in order to be of best benefit to everyone. The Buddha-figure we’re imagining ourselves as represents this goal and we imagine that whatever we do is of benefit to others. Our bodhichitta motivation is based on universal love and compassion.
So imagining ourselves as the Buddha-figure all the time – or as much as possible – helps us to keep focused with bodhichitta on what we’re aiming for, which is enlightenment. The whole purpose of imagining ourselves like this is to be able to benefit others as much as possible – bodhichitta – and this helps us overcome our self-preoccupation and selfishness. On the other hand, a delusional fantasy is even more self-preoccupied, with the person caught in their own little world, and with no motivation of attaining enlightenment or helping others.
As tantric practitioners, we usually engage in preliminary practices to purify ourselves of obstacles and past negative karmic potentials and to build up positive force that will ensure success in the practice. There are a lot of purification practices, like prostrations and Vajrasattva meditation (implying acknowledging our faults, making a strong resolution not the repeat them based on regret, reaffirming our safe and meaningful direction in life, and applying counter-measures to outweigh them), as well as practices to build up positive force like mandala offerings and guru-yoga. With all of this, we’re well-prepared for the tantric visualizations.
Delusional persons do no preparation for imagining themselves to be Mickey Mouse.
The next point is that deity-yoga is done on the basis of having received an empowerment, which is sometimes also called an “initiation.” During this event, the procedures we imagine happening, as described and performed by the spiritual master, activate our Buddha-nature factors to give rise to the appearances of the Buddha-figure.
The empowerment links us to a lineage of thousands of years of practice of other people who’ve done the same thing. It gives us security and assurance that what we’re doing is a time-tested method that has worked – we’re not just inventing it – so we don’t feel crazy. We get permission to do these practices, and the start of our doing them becomes a special spiritual event.
Delusional persons lack this completely, and instead they usually feel all alone.
Relation with a Spiritual Master
After the empowerment, the practice of deity-yoga is done under the guidance and supervision of a spiritual master (a guru), so there’s no uncertainty about it. It’s just like following a doctor’s prescription, and the teacher can answer all of our questions. The teacher also serves as a living example of what we’re aiming to become and so inspires us to follow in his or her footsteps.
As for delusional persons, well, even if they go to Disneyland and ask someone dressed as Mickey Mouse for permission to be Mickey Mouse themselves and to guide them in how to behave as Mickey – that’s crazy! It’s not the same.
Vows, Commitments and Confidentiality
At an empowerment, we take various sets of vows. Some concern our ethical behavior and some (the bodhisattva vows) are to avoid doing, saying or thinking anything that would jeopardize our ability to help others. In some cases, we also take the tantric vows to avoid doing anything that would jeopardize success in our practice of tantra. In addition, we take the commitment to do various meditation practices daily for the rest of our lives.
Keeping these vows and commitments purely requires strong discipline, and we need to take them very seriously to continue upholding them with a strong conscious effort. Delusional persons are totally unconscious of what they’re really doing and certainly haven't taken any vows to shape their behavior or made a commitment of daily practice at being Mickey Mouse.
Tantric practitioners are strongly instructed to keep their practice confidential and hidden, because it’s a private affair. They are not to make a big deal of it, and they certainly are not to advertise them through social media. Delusional persons will often boast or be arrogant about what they’re doing, and will make a public display of their fantasy. I remember one lady in Dharamsala, India, who was completely disturbed and thought she was Tara. She took off all her clothes and ran around the marketplace proclaiming herself as Tara. This is not what we do with proper tantric practice.
In summary, deity-yoga is done within the very large framework of:
- Wanting to get rid of our problems
- Putting a safe direction in our lives as a way to overcome these problems
- Following the principles of behavioral cause and effect as how we approach problems and their causes
- Renouncing our ordinary deluded self-image, and using a pure one to be able to help others and keep our focus on enlightenment
- Understanding that it’s not real but like an illusion, however it is valid since we can attain it in the future
- Receiving authorization and empowerment to do the practice, based on having prepared for this with preliminary practices
- Receiving guidance from a qualified spiritual master who has had successful experience in the practice
- Being linked to a long lineage of people who’ve done the practice successfully and attained enlightenment through it, giving us confidence
- Keeping the discipline of vowed commitments and various vows that we take in terms of our ethical behavior and interaction with others
- Keeping our practice confidential and private, and being humble about it.
Generally speaking, delusional persons lack all of the above.
This is the presentation of the differences between imagining ourselves as a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure within the context of proper tantra practice, and delusional persons imagining that they’re Mickey Mouse.
If, later on in our own tantra practice, we start to question, “What in the world am I doing? This is crazy!” then we should go through this whole checklist to make sure that all the factors are there, or whether some are missing or weak.
Deity-yoga is a method for attaining enlightenment, so of course, we need to really understand that it is totally possible to actually achieve enlightenment. All of the points above are very important, because if we don’t know the reality of what we’re doing, then instead of becoming a crazy person imagining they’re Mickey Mouse, we become a crazy person imagining we’re Avalokiteshvara or Tara. Then deity-yoga will become a path to insanity, rather than to enlightenment.
It’s stated in all the texts that tantra practice is dangerous, and there is a reason for it! The main point is that it must be practiced within the context of all these variables that we’ve looked at here. Otherwise, it’s easy to go astray. That’s why it’s so important to have the guidance and inspiration of a qualified spiritual master to help us stay on the correct path.
Are these Buddha-figures actual beings or are they creations of the mind, for instance Avalokiteshvara being the manifestation of compassion.
This is a very complex question. According to tradition, some Buddha-figures, such as Avalokiteshvara and Tara, are actual living beings with their own mental continuums. Tara, for instance, was a bodhisattva who vowed always to appear in female form, all the way till becoming a Buddha, so as to inspire and encourage women that they can achieve enlightenment. A Buddha can, of course, manifest in any form that will benefit others, including the form of Tara. But that doesn't mean that the mental continuum of that Buddha becomes the mental continuum of the individual being, Tara. Mental continuums always remain individual and never merge.
There are other figures that might not necessarily have had their own individual mental continuums, but that a Buddha can manifest as, like Kalachakra. There are no accounts of Kalachakra having ever been an individual living being, but Buddha manifested in this form to teach the Kalachakra Tantra. So that’s from the side of a Buddha.
From our side as practitioners, in anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, we’re speaking about the subtlest level of mind and energy, which all beings have, including when they become enlightened. This subtlest energy can be shaped to appear in any form. When Buddhas are manifesting in all these forms of Buddha-figures, it’s out of their subtlest energy. On our level of practice, we can’t manifest our subtlest energy in any form, and even at very advanced levels when we can, we can’t maintain it all the time. Now, at our level, when we imagine ourselves in these forms, they’re merely representations of what we’ve not yet attained.
So the interesting question is, are these just imagination? What does it mean that they’re just imagination? If you’re familiar with tantra practice, we have within a sadhana – a sadhana is a meditation practice for actualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure – a visualization of ourselves in what is called the “close-bonding figure,” sometimes translated as “commitment being,” with a close-bonding mandala around us. We then call forth what I call the “deep awareness being,” also called the “wisdom being,” to merge with it.
I always thought, and I guess many others too, that the close-bonding form was what you made a close bond with in order to actually attain the form. And I also always thought it was purely imaginary, while the deep awareness ones were the real ones coming from the Buddha-fields. But my teacher Serkong Rinpoche said that on a certain stage of the path, I think it’s the second, the path of application, you can actually receive teachings from a painting, a statue, and also from the close-bonding and deep awareness beings. So it’s not just our imagination; when you reach a certain level, it can function as an actual Buddha.
So, are these Buddha-figures imaginary, are they real? What do we mean by “real”? It becomes complicated! It’s like the statues and thangka scroll-paintings, for which we have what’s known as a “rabney” in Tibetan, which is sometimes translated as “consecration.” In this ritual, the deep awareness aspect is summoned and merged with the statues or paintings, and so prostrating and making offerings to them is the same as doing so to an actual Buddha. In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, the Indian master Shantideva wrote that you build up as much positive potential making offerings to a stupa (reliquary monument) of a Buddha as to the actual Buddha. Is it idol worship? Well, not really. One has to understand that one can receive teachings from anything – even from the wind – when you’re at an advanced level.
So on one level, the Buddha-figures represent what has not yet happened, but which can happen. On another, they are a different level at which our subtlest energy can manifest. On another level, we are imagining them. But yet on another level, we can even receive teachings from them as we would from a Buddha. And some are based on an actual living being with their own mental continuum, and some are not.
Is it alright to visualize ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure that’s more familiar to us, like Jesus or Mary, rather than in the form of these traditional Indian Buddha-figures that are hard to relate to?
In general, this is not a good idea, because it’s quite disrespectful to the other religions, like for instance here, Christianity, even if we keep it private and don’t tell anyone. It’s almost as if we’re converting Jesus and Mary into Buddhists. This doesn’t mean we can’t visualize Jesus or Mary in front of us and become inspired by their good qualities, and even imagine waves of inspiration coming to us in the form of colored lights. But what would be inappropriate and disrespectful would be to imagine ourselves as Jesus or Mary.
You mentioned that there are Buddha-figures that Buddha manifested that had their own individual mental continuum, like Tara, and others that did not, like Kalachakra. Similarly, Mickey Mouse doesn’t have his own mental continuum, and he didn’t ever live. So what’s the difference between Buddha manifesting as Kalachakra and as Mickey Mouse?
Again, this is a complex topic. Buddha manifested himself as Kalachakra as a skillful method to help others attain enlightenment. The various arms and faces represent various aspects of what we’re purifying, the path that purifies them, and the resultant level that is attained.
Another aspect is that at various times over history when various forms of these Buddha-figures have become too popularized, they have sort of become stale and the practice of them has became less effective. At such times, Buddha has often manifested to various highly realized masters in pure visions in different forms of the classic Buddha-figures. New tantric practices then evolved, based on these newly revealed figures.
Mickey Mouse is a bit of a difficult example, so let’s use Snow White. If someone claimed they had a vision of Buddha in the form of Snow White with the seven dwarves, and was now teaching the Snow White Tantra, people might think it’s really crazy.
The test of a valid teaching from a pure vision is that qualified yogis put it into practice, and achieve the stated results one should from such a practice. In other words, they attain enlightenment. For instance, Buddha has manifested as Tara in at least 21 different forms. These are the well-known “21 Taras.” It’s possible that someone could have a pure vision of Buddha manifesting as Tara in the form of Snow White in a mandala with seven dwarves, who represent the seven jewels of the aryas, and the white color of Snow White representing purification. It’s a bit far-fetched, but it is within the realm of possibility of what would be consistent with the Buddhist tradition. But there’d have to be a pretty good reason for such a manifestation of Tara as Snow White!
Like this, just for fun, we can analyze in this way. But keep in mind, delusional persons wouldn't think they are Buddhas manifesting in the form of Snow White as a skillful means for helping people reach enlightenment. They believe that they actually are the real Snow White! That’s an enormous difference.
Tantra is often likened to a bamboo pole: you either climb all the way to the top, or you slide all the way to the bottom. The practice of tantra must be grounded in a solid background of basic Buddhist knowledge and experience; otherwise, we risk using the practices in a way that increases, rather than decreases our delusions.
Deity-yoga might seem similar to simply imagining that we’re Mickey Mouse, but the differences are clear. Deity-yoga provides us with methods to overcome our ordinary, deluded self-image, and replace it with something wholly pure that we can use to take ourselves all the way to our presently, not-yet-happening future enlightenment.