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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Explanatory Talk at the Bloomington
Kalachakra Initiation, 1999

Alexander Berzin
Bloomington, Indiana, August 23, 1999

2 Questions and Answers

Being Prepared for an Empowerment

Question: Please clarify when a student is sufficiently prepared to take the initiation. Can we interpret auspicious signs, like a conch in the clouds, as a yes? I am concerned about the karmic implications of my motivation, whether it is correct or incorrect.

Berzin: Auspicious signs are, well, auspicious signs. It's hard to say whether they are projections or whether they are actually there. We can better gauge our preparedness in terms of whether we have some sort of "wisdom". I prefer the translation "discriminating awareness". Do we have some discriminating awareness based on listening to the teachings, with which we are able to discriminate between what are and are not the Buddhist teachings concerning renunciation, bodhichitta, and voidness? Not only do we need discrimination of what are correct teachings, but we also need to have thought about them deeply, so that we have some understanding of them. It doesn't have to be the deepest understanding, but enough understanding to be convinced that they are correct – and not just based on blind faith. If we have that much, it is enough.

Also, we need a feeling that we can actually achieve these things. We are convinced that it is possible to gain the full understanding of voidness; it is possible to get rid of all of the deceptive appearance-making, disturbing attitudes, disturbing emotions, and so on. Otherwise, why are we trying to do it? We are convinced that it is possible.

We are also convinced that it is possible for us to do it. Otherwise, again, why are we here? It is possible for us open our hearts out to others more and more. It is not that our hearts are permanently locked into selfishness. It is possible for us eventually to give up all our projections and the crazy stuff that our minds are involved with and believe in. So, when are convinced that it is possible and we want to do it, not only to help ourselves get out of our problems, but to help others too, then I think we are ready.

I think another very important point is to have a realistic idea of what the spiritual path is like. The spiritual path is not linear. It is a nonlinear path. If it were linear, it would get better and better every day. Our progress on the path is almost never going to be like that. Realistically speaking, it's going to go up and down. Some days our practice is going to go well; many days it won't go well. For many days, we may not lose our tempers, and then, one day, we blow it and we lose our tempers. It is very important not to be discouraged by that because we have the unrealistic expectation of a linear path. It is more chaotic, like the theory of chaos.

His Holiness always says look at your practice over a period of five or ten years. During that time, although at any short period it's going to go up and down, we may see some improvement. A pattern of growth emerges. That, I think, is very important to understand. Otherwise, as I say, we can get very discouraged.

We also need the understanding that there will not be magical mystical junk happening. It is not that His Holiness is going to pass these experiences to us like throwing a football and now we've got the experience and French horns go off and stuff like that. An experience arises dependently on what His Holiness is doing, dependently on what we are doing, on our preparation, on the ambiance, and on all sorts of things. A realistic idea is very important.

Clear Light Mind and Individuality

Question: If you say that the clear light mind is individual, doesn't this contradict the idea of no self?

Berzin: The problem, here, perhaps arises from a lack of clarity about the meaning of some technical terms. We need to differentiate between there being an individual self, there being a self that is always one thing, and we are all the same. In Buddhist terminology, "individual", "one", and "same" have quite different meanings.

From the point of view of the deepest level, although we cannot find a truly existent, solid self, this does not mean the self is totally nonexistent. Conventionally, there is an actual self, but only one that dependently arises. It is what the word "me" refers to on the basis of all the aggregate factors that make up my experience from moment to moment, forever. Who is this "me"? This "me" is what the word "me" refers to on that basis. That "me" is not solid and it doesn't exist in any impossible way. That absence is its voidness. An impossible way of existing would be as a little boss sitting in our heads, pressing buttons and making everything happen. Our minds make it appear as though this is how we exist, because we have a little voice in our heads. We think and, even worse, it feels as though there must be somebody inside talking: "What should I do now? What are people thinking of me?" That is impossible; that is a fiction. On the deepest level, there is the absence of that.

There is the whole philosophical discussion about how the "me" does not exist as "one", meaning that it does not exist as a monolithic entity that is always the same. Without going into detail about the refutation of this mistaken notion, the "me" is not "one". It changes from moment to moment. Now I am doing this, now I am doing that.

Furthermore, on the deepest level, we are all equal in terms of not existing that way, and we are equal in terms of having a clear light mind basis that goes from moment to moment, which accounts for the experiencing of things. From this point of view, it's not that all minds are one solid thing, totally the same, and it's not that they are totally separate and unrelated to each other.

I often use the example of a nose. We all have noses, so we're all the same in having a nose. Nevertheless, there isn't one big universal nose up in the sky that we all participate in or we are all going to dissolve into. Each nose is individual. When I blow my nose, I am not blowing your nose. Likewise, when I experience something, you don't experience it. If I eat, it fills my stomach, not yours. We have individual minds, individual continuities, but we are all the same in the sense that everybody has a mind.

Actually, that is not very precise. It's not that there is a "me" who then has a mind, like I have a suitcase. But, if we speak roughly, we all have a mind, just like we all have a nose, individually. Nevertheless, the way our minds exist is the same; the fact that we have a mind is the same, and the fact that we all have potentials is the same. The fact that we don't exist in impossible ways, such as we are all one or we are all unrelated, doesn't negate the fact that we are all individuals. We are individuals.

The Ability to Keep Commitments and Vows

Question: I've taken my bodhisattva vows a number of times from His Holiness. I am engaged in lam-rim preliminary practices and I noticed that my practice is certainly nonlinear. It is cyclical, not as steady as I'd like it to be. I am very concerned about taking tantric vows and having my practice go through the same type of cycles now that I have the obligation of doing the six-session guru yoga every day. What are the repercussions of having a practice go through these down spots and cycles, and of not keeping the vow to do the six-session guru yoga practice or the sadhana practice that His Holiness recommends?

Berzin: The late Lama Thubten Yeshe said something very useful regarding this. He said, "What do you expect from samsara?" We are subject to disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes. We have to work; we are busy; we may have kids; we may get sick. This is samsara: uncontrollably recurring problems. Within that situation, what do you expect? It's not going to go so well. But, that is where we are and so that is what we need to work with. Without being unrealistic about it, we just plow on with the understanding that it is going to take a very long time. But, over the years, these practices make a gradual impression, especially if we have some understanding of what is going on.

His Holiness says things in the teachings very quickly and often we miss the profundity of what he is saying. One of the really profound things that His Holiness said concerning tantra practice was that it is important to have a general picture of the whole context of what we are doing on the tantra path, all the way to enlightenment. Then, in daily practice, put the emphasis on where we are at and do not put so much emphasis on the other aspects.

Further, His Holiness isn't making it up – Tsongkhapa makes the same point – when he says that, in terms of having the clarity and pride of the Buddha-figure (which is to feel that we actually are that), having a vague, general image is enough. Don't worry about the details of the visualization. That will drive you crazy. Work on stopping ordinary appearance-making. Try to gain the feeling of not identifying with ordinary solid appearances, the feeling that we are a dependently arisen phenomenon that can take on the form of a Buddha-figure; our energies can be molded into that. Clarity of all the details will come later as a function of concentration.

It is the same thing with the practice of a six-session yoga or any sadhana practice, or in taking the empowerment: don't worry about all of the details of the visualization. That is fairly trivial at the beginning. As His Holiness was saying, to do all of it without an understanding of voidness is just going to reinforce the conceptual mind and our believing in weirdness, like some crazy person thinking that he is Napoleon. That is not useful.

We need to have an idea that this is what is involved in the path and in the process of following it, but focus on what we need in the beginning. What do we need in the beginning? The willingness to give up our ordinary appearance-making and our belief in ordinary appearances. We are only going to do that by having some bodhichitta motivation. Why do I want to do this? Because projecting all sorts of junk on people is preventing me from helping them. As we go deeper into this, there is more conviction and our bodhichitta and renunciation become more stable. We also try to gain the understanding of voidness. Only within that context can we put a lot of effort into the visualizations.

What is the important point of the six-session practice? The important point is staying mindful of the nineteen practices that will bond us closely to the five Buddha-families, referring to "family traits" or Buddha-nature. For instance, there are four ways of giving: giving material things; giving advice and teachings, which is the wish for others to be happy; and giving equanimity, in which we do not cling to others, or reject or ignore them. The six-session practice is to help us keep mindful of doing this each day.

We can combine this with the purification practices of Vajrasattva. It is very helpful to do Vajrasattva recitation each evening – three, seven, or whatever number of repetitions of the hundred-syllable mantra we can manage – to remind ourselves not only of the nineteen bonding practices, but also to purify them if we haven't been able to keep them up. We examine ourselves. Have I really tried to be a generous person today? Have I really tried to keep this direction in life? Have I really tried to put discipline into improving myself, into restraining from negative things and into trying to help others? Have I really tried to be mindful of the absence of a real referent to my crazy thoughts? That is what is important, not the actual ritual recitation.

Some days, it will go better than others. What do you expect?

When to Practice the Six-Session Yoga

Question: What times of day would be most beneficial for performing the six-session yoga?

Berzin: Most people do it three times in the morning and three times in the evening. As I explain in the book, we can do any of the different versions. It doesn't matter. We can do a longer version in the morning and a shorter one at night, or vice versa. We don't have to do the Kalachakra six-session all the time. We can do that maybe on the weekends, when we have the time. In an emergency, we can always manage to do the four-line one.

Basically, most people do it when they get up in the morning when the mind is clear and just before they go to sleep, but there is no hard and fast rule about that. It is whatever is convenient. It is difficult for most people, though, to just stop whatever they are doing in the middle of the day and do it then. It is easier at the start and at the end of the day.

Tsog Offerings and Tantric Vows

Question: A couple of the vows refer to tsog offerings. By taking the Kalachakra initiation, are we required to make a tsog offering twice a month, on the tenth and twenty-fifth of the Tibetan month? What are we empowered to do with this empowerment?

Berzin: There is no commitment to do tsog. You can do it if you want, but it is not necessary.

Tsog is a bit mystifying for many people. Tsog (tshogs) is the same word that is translated as "collection" in "collection of merit" and "collection of wisdom", which I call "network of positive forces" and "network of deep awareness." Thus, it means a network.

In a tsog offering, we focus on the transformation of various networked aspects of our bodies, as represented by meat and alcohol. In Kalachakra, we speak specifically about going down to voidness with a blissful mind and making an offering of the transformed subtle energies of the body. "Transformed" means that we put aside the ordinary appearance-making that leads to thinking this is meat and alcohol and a it's a no-no, or it's weird, or I like them, and stuff like that. We get rid of that ordinary appearance-making and get into a transformed way of seeing these things, as dependently arising phenomena that may be useful in certain situations. With a blissful understanding of this, we make an offering of them.

This, then, reinforces or strengthens the ability that we have, through the networks of our positive forces, to transform our energies, aggregates, elements, and so on, with a blissful understanding of voidness, and to offer them to the benefit of others. This is tsog. It is done with a ritual. But, there is not requirement to do it from taking the Kalachakra initiation.

Empowerment and Blessing

Question: What is the difference between an empowerment and a blessing?

Berzin: Tantric practice is basically working with Buddha-figures (called yidams in Tibetan) and, in the highest class of tantra, which is the one to which Kalachakra belongs, working also with the body's subtle energies, and so forth. To engage in such practice, we need to empower the foundational seeds with causal seeds and receive inspiration. This is what a wang (dbang) does. A wang is an empowerment.

My root teacher Serkong Rinpoche, who was His Holiness' Kalachakra teacher, said receiving an empowerment is like being given a sword. Buddhism often uses martial images. After all, Buddha came from the princely warrior caste. A jeynang (rjes-snang), sometimes translated as "blessing" or as "permission", comes subsequent to that, and is like sharpening the sword. We sharpen it by gaining more inspiration (also sometimes translated as "blessing") from the guru as a Buddha, in terms of the faculties of body, speech, mind, and all three together. It adds another boost to the initial thrust that we got with the empowerment. To emphasize this point, I often translate it as a "subsequent permission", but permission is not really the word here. It is subsequent giving, as it is what is given or conferred subsequently to the empowerment.

Often, lamas will give subsequent permission to people who have not received any tantric empowerment at all. Without any previous empowerments, we are not empowered to imagine ourselves as Buddha-figures. In such cases, with merely a subsequent permission, we can just do practices with Buddha-figures visualized in front of us or on the top of our heads, as we might do when practicing the hundred-thousand repetitions of ngöndro preliminaries. But, such type of practice is not really the main purpose for subsequent permissions. If one follows tradition, as His Holiness does, one needs to receive an empowerment first and then, after that, a subsequent permission.

[For more detail, see: Basic Features of Tantra.]

Kalachakra and the Environment

Question: Can you speak about the effect of the Kalachakra initiation on the environment? Does it affect the environment more than any other tantra?

Berzin: Nothing comes to mind as to why the empowerment ceremony itself would particularly affect the environment. It is probably not doing any good for the grass on the grounds! In general, I think it would be very, very indirect if anything. His Holiness always says is that there is nothing special about him giving the initiation and there is nothing special about when or where he gives it. He gives it when he is requested, and when the circumstances are conducive for it. When people are able to organize the initiation in a certain place, then His Holiness will confer it.

As for its effect on the environment, often it is correlated with peace. How is it correlated with peace? In Shambhala, the land where Kalachakra was originally spread, everybody from all the different religions there got together in the Kalachakra mandala in order to face the threat of an invasion of barbaric forces. It was not that everybody was being converted to Buddhism. The advice was for everybody to follow their own spiritual traditions purely and to give up caste differences (though it is not limited to caste differences). In this way, the people would present a unified ethical front to barbaric forces that would threaten to get rid of everything related to spiritual practice.

[See: Religious Conversion in Shambhala.]

His Holiness always says that the main thing is the teaching before the empowerment, not the empowerment itself. Very few people will really get the empowerment on a deep level and practice Kalachakra. Most will gain some sort of admiration for it, some sort of positive impression from it, and so on, and that is very nice. But, what is really important is that a large group of people come together in a peaceful atmosphere with many interested observers from other religions as well.

As in the ceremony for developing aspiring bodhichitta yesterday, His Holiness was saying you don't have to take safe direction (refuge) from the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. If you are Christian, you can substitute the Trinity there as well. The point is to have some ethical, positive direction in life and to go in that direction to be able to benefit and help everybody. When a group of people comes together in a peaceful atmosphere for two weeks focusing on this, they are not going to go out and mess up the environment. So, maybe it has an indirect influence on the environment in that way. But, there is nothing miraculous about it.

Sleepiness During the Ceremony

Question: Often, while His Holiness is speaking in Tibetan, or even during the English translation, I may not pay very strict attention and feel that I've heard it before. I get sleepy and even fall asleep. What can we do about that?

Berzin: First, don't feel guilty about it. It happens to everybody. Again, what do you expect from samsara? We all have a mind that is under the influence of disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes, and so this is going to happen. It's going to be a nonlinear experience of three days and a nonlinear empowerment. Some moments are going to be more focused than others, so we try to start with a strong conscious intention to concentrate and to keep awake. We can say that to ourselves beforehand to remind ourselves, because it's easy to forget.

In terms of thinking "I've heard all of this before", as Trijang Rinpoche, the late Junior Tutor of His Holiness, often said, "I've read Tsongkhapa's Lam-rim chen-mo (A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path) a hundred times; and each time I read it, it's like reading a new text. I get different levels of insight." The greatest lamas go to His Holiness' teachings on lam-rim over and again. We might wonder what they doing there. Each time they listen to His Holiness, they understand something new from a different angle.

The way that His Holiness speaks is difficult to convey with translation. Thubten Jinpa, the translator, does a fantastic job. He is the best. But, His Holiness speaks in a Tibetan that is like a zip file on a computer. He abbreviates everything and speaks on an extremely profound level at top speed. To unpack what His Holiness says requires slowing it down and listening to it.

Now, some people can unpack it more easily than others. When you unpack it, the implications of what His Holiness is saying are really quite extraordinary. His Holiness has the ability to teach very much like a Buddha teaches, which is to teach to all levels of people simultaneously. Beginners will get something from what he teaches and more advanced people will get things not only from the words, but from what His Holiness indicates without having to spell it all out incredibly profound things. If you have the background, you can hear that. You don't hear it in some magical way as if His Holiness were whispering something in your ear. You can hear it in the sense that you understand what His Holiness is referring to, like what is behind a term that he used. Even if we are working with a translation that is not as packed or as full as what His Holiness is saying in Tibetan, it is still pretty packed.

Our minds are making it appear as though we've heard it all before a million times, but we try to dispel that belief and that fantasy. We have not heard it all before, because there is much more that can be understood – even if it's just in terms of the extraordinary ways in which His Holiness puts it all together. With the openness that comes from understanding that absence of impossible ways of existing, we can gain more.

We try to keep awake. Sometimes we can't. Set the intention. Pinch yourself. Focus on the point between the eyebrows, which is where the subtle energy-drop of being of awake is located. If you turn your eyes upward for a few moments, that sometimes helps to stay awake.

Question: What would be your suggestion for the most efficient way to achieve an ability to understand His Holiness' teachings in Tibetan?

Berzin: Hard work. It is not easy. His Holiness speaks the most complicated, elegant language of any Tibetan, with the largest vocabulary, and he is one of the fastest speakers as well. So it requires a long, long time. I think what is important is not getting frustrated – and also to realize that our understanding will inevitably go up and down.

Contact with Hinayana

Question: One of the tantric vows is not to spend more than one week in a Hinayana household. Does that mean that we can't do a vipassana retreat?

Berzin: The vow specifies shravakas (listeners). Shravakas are not necessarily Theravadins, or people who are leading vipassana courses. The point here, particularly in the context of the tantric vows, is not to spend a long time with people who are going to make fun of any tantric practice that you are doing, who think that it is stupid and a waste of time, and who will put you down and mock you for trying to do it. Those are the people referred to here. Unless we are very strong in our practice, we can get discouraged – very discouraged – being around such people for a long time. That certainly is not the case if we are just going to a vipassana course.

[See: The Terms Hinayana and Mahayana.]

Self-Cherishing and Planning

Question: I am not sure how to put self-cherishing together with the need to plan and set goals in my life. I wonder if you could speak to that paradox.

Berzin: Self-cherishing is based on thinking in terms of "me" as a solid boss inside my head that has to have its own way. Well, that leads to acting in a very disturbed and selfish way. But, on a conventional level, we are individuals. We need to lead a life; we need to make plans; we need to make money; we need to take care of our families; and so on. Those things are not contradictory. They are based on two different views of self. One is the conventional self that needs to live in life, and the other, the self-cherishing, operates around the mistaken belief in a solid boss inside our heads.

Clear Light, Rebirth, and Potentials

Question: How does the continuity of clear light carry seeds, instincts, and so on from one lifetime to another?

Berzin: There are several explanations. First of all, vows are a very subtle form. What is clear light a continuity of? It is isn't a light or anything like that; it refers to a level of mind. Mind is not a material phenomenon with physical qualities that could carry physical seeds. Mind refers to the mental activity of simultaneously producing cognitive appearances of things and cognizing them. In simple words, mind is the mental activity of experiencing things, not the agent of that act or the tool that a solid, separate "me" uses to experience things. Clear light mind, then, is the subtlest level of this mental activity of moment-to-moment experiencing of things.

That activity of experiencing things, which forms the basis of and underlies any grosser experiencing, has with it the subtlest energy. This is the energy side of clear light. Whether we look at experiencing things in terms of the mental activity involved or in terms of the subtle energy, they both describe the same event, just from two points of view.

This subtlest energy can have a shape, because it has form. The vows are such a shape, and one that can go from lifetime to lifetime. Also, one level of karma is a certain shaping of the mental continuum, but that is not the level that goes from lifetime to lifetime.

What goes from lifetime to lifetime? We usually speak of seeds or tendencies, on the one hand, and instincts, propensities, or habits on the other. These are very difficult words to translate – sa-bon and bag-chags in Tibetan. [Nowadays (2002), I translate them as "karmic legacies" and "constant habits."]

The most common way of understanding them is that these are nonstatic (impermanent) phenomena that are neither a form of material phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. (It is very misleading to say they are not "conscious phenomena." In English, objects of thought are also conscious phenomena. That is not what this is talking about. It is talking about ways of being aware of something, and these are not one of them.) These tendencies and habits change from moment to moment, so they are in a category called "neither" (forms of material phenomena nor ways of being aware). What are they? They are abstractions that can be imputed onto individual continuities.

For example, what is the habit of drinking coffee? It's not a coffee cup in our heads; it's not the thought to drink a cup of coffee that comes from the habit; nor is it the intention to drink a cup of coffee. What is the habit? All we have is a basis. The basis for labeling this habit is the fact that we drank coffee yesterday and the day before, and we can predict that we will drink it tomorrow as well. So, the basis is an individual series of similar phenomena in sequence with each other. If the mental continuum were not individual there would be no sequence; no order to anything.

How do we refer to this sequence? We refer to it as a "habit": "I have a habit of drinking coffee." Where is the habit? It's not any particular moment of drinking coffee and it's not the intention to drink coffee. What is the habit? It is what the word "habit" refers to. What is it being labeled on? On a sequence of similar phenomena occurring in a specific continuum.

Thus, tendencies and habits are what can be labeled on an individual continuum of clear light mental activity, because clear light mental activity is the basis of each lifetime. It is not as though there is something physical being carried from lifetime to lifetime. Rather, based on similar experiences in one lifetime and then in another lifetime, we can say that there is a tendency or a habit.

Another theory is that although habits are this type of phenomenon, the karmic seeds or tendencies are tiny traces of a way of being aware of something, just as a seed of rice is still rice. From this point of view, a seed could be a trace of an experience that reinforces an aspect of Buddha-nature, such as a blissful awareness or an understanding. That little trace gets carried on, changing moment to moment.

Question: Where does that explanation come from?

Berzin: The first explanation is from the abhidharma literature, concerning special topics of knowledge. The second explanation, of seeds as being traces of ways of being aware of something, is from my root teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, who was also one of His Holiness' teachers. He used to recite Tsongkhapa's text The Essence of an Excellent Explanation of Definitive and Interpretive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po) from memory every day as part of his practice. One of his meditation realizations from it was that you could also look at these phenomena as traces of awareness, and he taught that to His Holiness. That is why His Holiness mentioned that it could be looked at in both ways. I don't think this was in previous commentaries. I think that was from Serkong Rinpoche's realization.

The Rituals during the Ceremony

Question: Can you explain the ritual dances?

Berzin: They are offering ceremonies. During offering ceremonies, as in any of what are called "lama dances", the participants imagine that they are offering goddesses. Rather than just reciting the text and imagining it, they act it out with their bodies in motion, as one does with mudras or symbolic hand movements. It's just one step further in making a material representation of the practice.

More specifically, in Kalachakra, the offering goddesses are associated with the elements, so the colors of their costumes are the colors of the elements. There is a great emphasis in Kalachakra on subatomic particles and on the various elements in terms of our deceptive appearance-making. It is as if the mind paints a solid appearance onto subatomic particles and the elements. We want to purify our minds from doing that and then offer the elements as a way of gaining a blissful understanding of voidness, for helping others. These rituals represent this purification and offering, which are major themes in all the Kalachakra rituals.

How Can New Parents Participate in an Empowerment?

Question: I myself am a parent of toddlers and there are a fair number of parents here besides me. How can parents of small children participate more fully?

Berzin: In India, Tibetan and Indian children tend to be more docile and quiet than are Western ones, for various reasons – differences in nourishment, manner of disciplining, and so on. You can take a two-year-old on a twelve-hour bus ride, for example, and he or she won't say peep for the entire time. Similarly, you can take toddlers and babies to initiations – and many Tibetans do – and most will not make a disturbance. Western children, on the other hand, are better nourished, disciplined in a different way, encouraged to express what they like and want; and, consequently, they are much noisier. That is a fact.

What do we do with it? If the audience is tolerant, there is no problem if the toddlers are noisy. On a more profound level, one can dispel the ordinary appearance of "What an annoyance!" that the mind creates with the baby crying, and just take it as a sound. For most people, that is quite difficult to do.

What is a parent to do? I think one has to be considerate, but it is unfortunate if the only solution is that the parent has to go out whenever the baby cries. I noticed that there are many empty seats near the door of the tent. If the baby is very disruptive to others, I think that if you sit where other people are not sitting right next to you, this creates a little bit of a buffer zone. In this way, the other participants can still hear the teachings even if the baby is making noise. It is a compromise solution. Parents can also bring things to occupy the baby's time. If the baby needs to be fed, feed it. If you have a toddler that needs to be amused, bring coloring books, like you do on a long car ride. That is all I can think of.

To Witness or To Participate?

Question: Kalachakra is a very advanced tantric practice. If we are not ready for it, would it be better to just be an interested observer and not participate?

Berzin: There are two facets to that. One is: are we going to be involved with tantra at all? For that, we definitely need to evaluate whether we are ready to keep the vows and commitments. There is no commitment to practice Kalachakra from this empowerment. We need, however, at least to keep the bodhisattva and tantric vows, do the six-session practice, and have admiration for Kalachakra, so that maybe sometime in the future we might practice it – even if only in a future life.

Thus, if our question is about whether or not to get involved with tantra at all, that is one thing. If, however, it is a question of whether or not to get involved with Kalachakra – because we are already deeply involved in another anuttarayoga tantra practice, such as Yamantaka or Vajrayogini – I think it is unnecessary to be worried. There is no commitment to do specific Kalachakra practice. In fact, we may view it as a good opportunity, if we have already received an empowerment, to purify and retake the vows. If we are not going to get involved with tantra, but we've taken bodhisattva vows before, it's also a good opportunity to purify and take them again. Or, we can reaffirm our safe direction and aspiring bodhichitta. It is up to each person. However, we don't need to be intimidated by Kalachakra. Kalachakra has very many levels of practice. We don't have to practice with seven hundred and twenty-two deities to start with.

Mandala in Daily Life

Question: How do we work with the mandala in daily life, particularly in terms of the five Buddha-families?

Berzin: On one level, each of the Buddha-figures represents the full enlightenment of Buddhahood, but they also represent specific aspects of enlightenment that we can then focus on. Kalachakra has an extremely complex mandala with figures representing all the days of the year, all the planets, all the astrological configurations, and so on. The image or the feeling that this brings to mind is that of being able to handle anything that comes up in terms of the cycle of the year, our own daily cycle, and so on. Nothing is too much.

This image can be very helpful when we are dealing with a very complex lifestyle and more work is dumped on our desks. We can feel, "No problem. It's just another group of figures in this corner of the mandala. I can handle it." We can deal with the ups and downs during the year, those that happen on an external level (astrology) and those that happen with the monthly cycle (for women particularly). All of these things are just part of the cycle and we can transform them. I think we can work with the mandala in that way. As beginners in tantra, we certainly don't have to visualize the mandala all the time.

In terms of the Buddha-families, I find it very helpful to work with the five types of deep awareness, usually translated as the five Buddha-wisdoms. In another of my books, Developing Balanced Sensitivity, there are exercises that one can do. The Buddha-families refer to aspects of Buddha-nature, specifically to components of the network of deep awareness that we all have. Our minds have the basic ability to mirror things, to take in information like a video camera. It is able to put information in categories and seeing how things fit together, so we make sense of what we perceive. We can see that all beings are equal in terms of wanting to be happy and not wanting to be unhappy. We can see the individuality of each person, so that we don't deal with someone as just another man or woman, or just another member of this or that ethnic group. On that basis, we know how to relate to a person as an individual – within the general category of what he or she is, based on the information that we take in like a mirror or camera. The awareness of reality (dharmadhatu awareness) is that people don't solidly exist as what they are now, like that forever. Someone may be a child now, so we relate to her as a child, but she will grow. Someone may be confused now, but he has the potential to grow, so we see him in an open way. Recognizing and trying to enhance these five types of deep awareness, then, is a very helpful way, I think, for working with the Buddha-families. It strengthens the network of deep awareness that we already have.