If we’ve received a tantric initiation, we usually commit to doing the associated practice every day for the rest of our lives. Many Tibetans take these empowerments with the motivation of planting seeds for their future lives, with no aim to really practice tantra in depth in this life – apart from saying some mantras every day. As Westerners, most of us aren’t convinced about rebirth, and so think in terms of this lifetime. But even if we’re doing our daily practice, it can often feel like it’s going nowhere. It can easily become an empty ritual of just repeating certain words in either English, or Tibetan – a language we hardly know.
If we’ve committed to doing a daily practice, we need to try and make it as effective as possible and really put our hearts into it.
It’s said that through the practice of tantra – especially the highest class of tantra – it’s possible to achieve enlightenment within this very lifetime. In fact, it’s even possible to do it within three years and three phases of the moon. This sounds appealing and although it is possible in theory, we have to realize that it is highly unlikely. Tantric practice is extremely difficult and, while it might not require the countless eons that the Mahayana sutra practices take, achieving enlightenment with tantra still requires an extraordinary number of lifetimes of intensive practice. Intensive practice means 24 hours a day, with no holidays – practicing tantra is no excuse for laziness!
At most initiations, the tantric master will explain the basic theory of tantra and how it works to bring enlightenment, aiming to encourage and instill in practitioners a deep respect for how sophisticated the methods are. And we really should respect it – if we look at the enumeration of the thousand Buddhas of this world age, only a few will ever teach tantra. This motivates us to engage in it seriously.
What does engage “seriously” actually mean? It’s not only keeping up with our daily commitments, which many people give up after a while because they find it boring or don’t have the time. If we take initiations when we’re young, we’re often idealistic, not thinking of the time and responsibilities that having a family and career will bring. If we do manage to maintain a daily practice throughout our lives, then we need to work on all the lam-rim steps. We need to be able to sincerely and emotionally integrate each of the graded stages into our lives.
We shouldn’t think this is easy. Step two is based on step one, and step three on step two. We can’t skip ahead without firmly establishing the previous steps, otherwise our whole practice becomes totally unstable. The importance of these various steps is that they benefit our daily practice and enable us to practice tantra effectively.
The Spiritual Teacher
The lam-rim begins with an explanation of the importance of the spiritual teacher. We obviously need a teacher to give us the empowerments. They connect us to a lineage of masters going all the way back to the Buddha, giving us confidence in the authenticity and effectiveness of the practice. The teacher also adds a personal aspect when we take vows and commitments. Making promises to a visualization of a Buddha doesn’t usually provide the same emotional aspect as doing so to a person seated in front of us.
Our spiritual teacher has to be someone who inspires and moves us on an emotional level. The more respect and appreciation we have for them, the deeper our discipline and commitment will be. The sutras instruct us to picture our teacher in miniature seated on top of our heads or in our hearts. If we keep mindful of our teacher like this all day, it becomes difficult to act irresponsibly in front of them!
The deep emotion we develop out of respect and appreciation should not disturb us or make us cling. It gives us confidence where we don’t react with anger or sadness when we’re told to do something we dislike, nor are we becoming arrogant, thinking we know best. We also don’t put ourselves down, thinking that we’re some miserable, lowly creature with no good qualities, while the teacher is a perfect object of worship. The Fifth Dalai Lama clearly states that we should discriminate between the teacher’s good qualities and their shortcomings. But since the teacher has far more good qualities than bad, we gain far more benefit and inspiration by focusing on them.
Precious Human Rebirth
The next step is to think of our precious human life. We have this temporary opportunity to practice something that can really make the most of our time on earth. Particularly important is that as humans we are unique in having the subtle energy system and chakras needed for enlightenment in tantra, something not mentioned in standard lam-rim lists. This makes our human rebirth incredibly precious.
One of the tantric vows is to not abuse our aggregates – our body and mind – because they’re very precious and we need to use them on the path. Pushing ourselves too hard and stressing out causes problems for our energy system. But we need to find the middle way between this and the extreme of laziness. We should sleep well, eat properly, and get enough physical exercise. Especially, we need to avoid polluting our minds with violence, pornography and so on.
If we don’t appreciate the precious human life that we have, there’s the risk of us wasting it and missing the rare opportunity to practice tantra effectively. We might ignore thinking about our motivation and just recite words like an empty ritual, mindlessly waving a vajra and bell. All the time, we imagine ourselves great tantric practitioners!
I want to make one point, which is that doing this empty daily ritual is not a total waste of time. It still helps us to develop a sense of discipline and responsibility. If we recite it in Tibetan, there’s a special rhythm that also helps us to calm down, and it connects us to the Tibetan lineage. But we won’t be taking full advantage of the practice, which is the point of this precious human rebirth.
Death and Impermanence
Once we’ve come to appreciate our precious human rebirth, we reflect on death and impermanence. Our life is impermanent, and we will definitely die. We could die at any time, because death doesn’t discriminate between old or young, sick or healthy. When we die, nothing will help us except the positive habits we’ve built up with our Dharma practice.
The aim of tantric practice is to get rid of death and rebirth, which is the basis for experiencing all the sufferings from lifetime to lifetime. The highest class of tantra includes practices modeled on what happens during the death process, the intermediate stage, and rebirth. We do these practices so we’re actually able to substitute our ordinary death, bardo and rebirth for the actual attainment of Buddhahood.
When we die, our coarse consciousness dissolves, giving way to an extremely subtle level of mind. If we still have unawareness and the karmic potentials from disturbing emotions, they’ll possibly manifest and bring us to a lower rebirth. Instead of giving rise to samsaric appearance and existence, with tantra we are to give rise to an enlightened existence, through an understanding of voidness (emptiness) and with a bodhichitta motivation.
In the first stage of this highest class of tantra, we imagine reaching the subtlest level of mind, generating from it an enlightened Buddha form instead of our usual samsaric form. The form could be simple like a bardo figure, similar to the Sambhoghakaya appearance of a Buddha, or it could be a more complex Nirmanakaya-like appearance, analogous to rebirth.
We work with such visualizations on the initial “generation stage” and then, on what’s known as the “complete stage,” where everything is complete for us to actually work with our subtle energy system. Out of the subtlest energy we can actually generate a subtle form – rather than a samsaric form – called an “illusory body.” The practice is done in meditation, and is unsustainable out of meditation. Still, visualizing pure forms through working with the subtle energy system in this way is the direct cause for actually generating ourselves, at the final point, as an enlightened Buddha.
If we don’t believe in death, the bardo and rebirth, and if we have no appreciation of impermanence, then our practice becomes meaningless. We need to strongly think, “I will die one day, and I wish to avoid it being just an ordinary death, bardo and rebirth.” On the most basic level, our death could lead to a worse rebirth, where we don’t have this precious human life nor the freedoms it gives us. Being totally convinced that we will die at an uncertain time will motivate us to avoid creating negativities. If we think of death, bardo and rebirth in terms of the structure of the Four Noble Truths, then by meditating seriously on the first two truths – the true problem and true source of the problem – we’ll generate the wish to practice in order to get rid of our suffering.
The more aware we are of death and impermanence, the more effective will our daily practice be. There are so many causes of death – being hit by a truck, having a heart attack, eating bad food – and there are lower states in which we could be born, and in which countless beings are suffering. The beginninglessness of our lives means that we’ve almost certainly built up the negative potentials to be reborn as a cockroach, or worse. Although it can be hard to really appreciate what life would be like as a hungry ghost or hell-being, we can still consider the life of some human beings who live in the poorest countries. There are people all over the world who are starving, who have to walk miles to collect dirty water, and who are being exploited right now. If we deeply contemplate these kind of experiences, it will give rise to a strong intention to avoid them.
The next topic in the lam-rim is refuge – directing our lives toward a safe direction. Here we’re aiming for the last two Noble Truths where we completely eliminate all the obscuring factors that cause rebirth and the ensuing suffering. At the same time, we attain a correct understanding of reality and fully realize all of our good qualities. This is the deepest Dharma Jewel.
We have to understand the basic purity of our mental continuum – our Buddha-nature – and that all of the obscuring factors are fleeting. Because they’re temporary, they can be removed fully, forever. If we aren’t convinced that this is possible, then why would we even bother to try and remove the experiences of death, bardo and rebirth. If we aren’t absolutely certain that the Buddha and some of the Arya Sangha have achieved it, then how could we hope to ever achieve it ourselves?
When we come to understand how the Buddhas have achieved full enlightenment, and how the Arya Sangha is working toward full enlightenment, it provides incredible inspiration for us to work toward the same goal. We come to the decision that what they’ve done actually creates change, and choose to go in the same direction. This is refuge.
Avoiding Destructive Behavior
The final point in the initial scope of motivation is to avoid destructive behavior, because it produces lower rebirths. Taking this knowledge seriously gives us more strength in keeping our vows and commitments. Imagine being able to really see the kind of suffering and terrible rebirths that destructive behavior cause; it’d be difficult to carry out even the slightest destructive action.
Of course there are gross destructive behaviors too, like killing, stealing and lying. The heaviest of them, though, is to have a distorted antagonistic attitude, where we think that it’s stupid to avoid negativity and to practice tantra and it’s all a waste of time. This type of thinking causes us to give up the very methods that actually help us avoid suffering.
If we haven’t built up a strong foundation in the lam-rim initial scope, there is the danger of our tantric practice just becoming an empty ritual, and of our interest gradually fizzling out.
Understanding how precious this life we have is, and how it could come to an end any moment, motivate us to make the most of it. At death, our friends, body and wealth are of no use to us – only the positive habits we’ve built up through our Dharma practice. Realizing this will urge us to direct our lives towards a safe direction, and allow us to delight in our Dharma practice.