In the first part of this series, we looked at the initial level of motivation where we aim to avoid lower rebirths and gain a higher rebirth. In particular, we want a precious human rebirth so that we can improve in our practice.
The intermediate scope is when we aim to eliminate not just worse rebirths, but uncontrollably recurring rebirth altogether. Our goal is liberation.
The advanced level of motivation is to have the goal of attaining the enlightened state of a Buddha, where we can benefit others fully. Although we continue to work on improving ourselves from lifetime to lifetime, our primary interest is to be of most benefit to others.
First Noble Truth: Suffering
The first thing we look at here is the importance of considering the suffering and difficulties we encounter even in the higher states of rebirth: the human and god realms. In the previous scope, our aim was freedom from the gross suffering found in the lower realms. Now, we need to realize how our ordinary happiness is just another form of suffering.
The happiness we experience in our human lives, and the happiness gods experience in their lives, is unreliable and temporary. It never satisfies us and it never lasts – we never know how we’ll feel in the next moment. We always want more, and yet if we get it, our experience turns to happiness. It’s like chocolate: a little bit makes us happy and so we want more and more, until we feel sick to our stomachs. Unfortunate as it is, ordinary happiness always changes to suffering and unhappiness.
Within each tantric sadhana is a section on making offerings. We imagine making offerings to others and bringing them happiness, or to ourselves in the form of a particular Buddha, where we accept and enjoy them with happiness. This is a happiness that is free from all disturbing emotions and mental obscurations – not our ordinary happiness that changes and is dissatisfying.
When the causes for unhappiness are eliminated forever, the happiness we experience also goes on forever, and doesn’t degenerate. If happiness is based on a condition that doesn’t last – like getting tasty food – then of course, that happiness simply cannot last. If we aim for ordinary happiness with our tantric practice, then that is what we’ll get: a temporary and superficial escape from our unhappiness. We could sit in meditation and think that everything is perfect; but when it’s over, we’ll feel unhappy again.
In the highest class of tantra, we also try to focus on voidness (emptiness) with a sense of blissful awareness, but what does this mean? Again, it’s important not to just equate this with the ordinary happiness of getting some nice food or a massage, but rather to the bliss of being absolutely free of all disturbing emotions and obscurations. It should be a feeling free of attachment, in stark contrast to our ordinary happiness that is usually strongly attached to some object or another.
Sometimes people can mistake Buddha-figures as “super-gods” or saints, and so it’s important to remember that the god realms have suffering too. When we focus on Buddha-figures in front of us, we need to realize that they have gone far beyond being a god. Many long sadhanas contain numerous praises to various deities and it’s easy to become confused, thinking the aim of this is for them to grant all of our wishes. The actual point of the praises is to remember their positive qualities, inspiring us to want to achieve the same state. Buddhas have the quality of perfect equanimity, and so if we are receptive to Buddha’s help, we’ll receive it regardless of whether we make offerings or not.
Second Noble Truth: Disturbing Emotions and Unawareness
Once we’ve contemplated suffering in the six realms, we look at the cause for this from the second Noble Truth: disturbing emotions.
Disturbing emotions cause our suffering because they lead us to act destructively, building up negative potentials, which in turn bring about a worse rebirth. Conversely, positive karmic potentials from constructive behavior bring about a better rebirth in samsara.
We act destructively because of disturbing emotions, which are based on an unawareness of both reality and cause and effect. Even when we act constructively within the context of samsara, we’re still unaware of how we exist, and this can be mixed with or without disturbing emotions. At the time of death, our unawareness activates negative or positive karmic potentials resulting in a rebirth within samsara. At this level, we need to reflect on the disadvantages of our disturbing emotions and the unawareness that underlies them.
Before we get involved in tantra, it’s very important to weaken the force of our disturbing emotions. This isn’t to say that we’re completely free of anger or attachment, but that we’ve worked somewhat on our emotions. While we do use our disturbing emotions – desire, anger, naivety, pride – as part of the path, if we haven’t made progress in overcoming them, there’s the danger of getting carried away by them, becoming emotionally disturbed, acting destructively and building up further negative karmic potential.
One example is desire. There is much tantric imagery that appears sexual in nature, and we often imagine ourselves as a couple in union during practice. Here, the couple do not represent a usual man and woman. Instead, the imagery is that of a mother and father: the mother represents the understanding of voidness, while the father represents the method. The union of mother (wisdom) and father (method) gives birth to the child, representing Buddhahood. Tantric texts state that we should use desire to get rid of desire itself. So, if we’re in no danger of being carried away by desire, then we can use this to generate a blissful mind which, with an understanding of voidness, will eliminate all desire completely. It’s delicate – even slight attachment to the experience as solid will stop any chance of understanding voidness.
Another example is anger. In many tantric practices we visualize ourselves as a forceful figure, where we use our own anger as a weapon to destroy our negative attitudes. It’s especially useful in overcoming an attitude of being too soft on ourselves, or thinking that we’re unable to attain enlightenment. Again, if we haven’t made great progress in overcoming anger before beginning these practices, we’ll mentally beat ourselves up and have little patience for others’ disturbing emotions.
Third Noble Truth: Renunciation
Once we’ve understood suffering and the cause of suffering, we need to see that it’s possible to achieve a true stopping of both. If we can understand this, then we’ll have renunciation: the determination to be free of suffering, based on the confidence that it’s possible. If we don’t have this, it all becomes wishful thinking.
We also need to be determined to renounce our ordinary appearances, where we see everything as independent objects as if they were wrapped up in plastic, separate from everything else. Our minds relate to these appearances in a confused way; thinking that they really exist the way they appear to us, we’re attracted to some, repelled by others and feel nothing toward the rest. It’s extremely difficult to really want to be free from our normal way of perceiving the world, but grasping at these appearances causes us suffering, and we must generate the determination to be free of them.
We should be careful not to go to the extreme of thinking that because the ordinary way in which our minds make objects appear is deceptive, nothing exists at all. This type of nihilism is dangerous because it could cause us to ignore those who suffer, thinking that they’re not real at all.
Fourth Noble Truth: The Three Higher Trainings
With renunciation as our motivation, we then practice the three higher trainings:
- Ethical discipline, without which we can’t maintain the practice
- Concentration, without which we can’t work on the complex visualizations
- Discriminating awareness, to understand the difference between reality and fantasy.
Discipline starts with trying to watch our actions and speech, and then our minds. Concentration refers to a mind free of mental wandering, flightiness of mind, mental dullness and so on – something we can develop through tantric practice, but is hard to do without at the start. Ideally, we would already have the exhilarating, perfectly concentrated state of mind called shamatha that can be sustained for four hours without any interruption or decline.
At the generation stage where we work with our imagination, we need to focus on an enormous amount of detail: we should be able to visualize all of the figures and features of the entire mandala as the size of the universe, and also all of it contained within a tiny drop at the tip of our nose, perfectly for four hours. When we’ve mastered this, we can start working on the complete stage, working with our actual subtle energy system. If we can’t precisely visualize the distinct details of each part of the mandala, then it’s hopeless to want to actually manipulate the winds and energies in the channels. If we try and control our energies without laser-like concentration, we could upset them and cause a tremendous amount of damage to our nervous system and mind. It’s important to respect this and not just think it’s something that anybody can do on their own.
Discriminating awareness is required so that we can see what is reality and what is fantasy. Without an understanding of voidness, there’s the danger of becoming completely schizophrenic and actually identifying ourselves as the deity in a solid way. This is a cause of being reborn as a ghost in the form of the deity.
Advanced Level: Equanimity, Love and Bodhichitta
On the advanced level, we first develop equanimity toward all beings. This is a crucial point because in the sadhanas, when we imagine light rays emanating out to benefit all beings, it really means absolutely every single being. It’s like the sun, whose light rays shine down without favoritism.
On the basis of equanimity, we develop love, the wish for everybody to be happy and have the causes for happiness; and compassion, the wish for everybody to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. We imagine light rays emanating out, removing everyone’s suffering and giving them every happiness. It’s an incredibly profound practice, in which emanating lights represents our energy benefiting others, and the light rays coming back representing the dissolving of the energy winds into the central channel. But without an accompanying mind of love and compassion, just imagining light rays shining out from us and dissolving back in doesn’t have much point.
Finally, we develop bodhichitta, the aim to achieve our own enlightenment in order to benefit innumerable living beings as much as possible. Our own enlightenment has not yet happened, but tantric practice enables us to visualize ourselves as a Buddha-figure representing that enlightened state we’re aiming for. Otherwise, what’s the point of visualizing ourselves in such a form? But having trained ourselves with the visualizations, then through further training our subtle energy system and subtlest mind, we’ll eventually be able to naturally give rise to the form of an enlightened Buddha.
To practice tantra effectively, we need the foundation of the three stages of motivation as describe in this two-part series. In the initial scope, we rely on a spiritual teacher who moves our heart, and find deep respect for our precious human rebirth, the working basis of tantric practice. An understanding of death and impermanence serves as the basis for the death, bardo and rebirth process within tantric practice, and motivates us to use the opportunity we have now.
The intermediate scope, where we wish to relinquish rebirth altogether and pursue pure happiness, is backed by a deeper understanding of the Four Noble Truths. At this stage, we also learn how to weaken our disturbing emotions and use them to bolster our tantric practice, and to renounce our ordinary perception. With renunciation, we practice the three higher trainings of discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness. We’re able to stay focused on the actual reality of what we’re visualizing throughout our sessions, and not get confused.
Finally, in the advanced level, we develop equanimity for all beings; second, love and compassion for all to be happy and not to suffer; and third, bodhichitta to aim for enlightenment for the benefit of all. We use them all in our visualizations, imagining that already now, as a Buddha, we extend loving care equally for all.