General Kriya Tantra Practice
Session Two: The Four Types of Mental Stability and Questions
Berlin, Germany, 26 March 2007
Once we have practiced for a while, trying to maintain this deep awareness of nondual profound and clear—the profound understanding of voidness and the clarity of the visualization, these two steps—then we practice the four types of mental stability. Not necessarily that we practice all four of them; we would start with the first, and when we have gained some proficiency on that first one, then we could proceed to the next ones. They describe the practice as one progresses along the spiritual path toward enlightenment.
The first one that we do is the mental stability on the four types of recitation, recitation of the mantra. This is when we do the mantra recitation. And the four types of recitation that we do of the mantra are either with the emphasis of ourselves as the deity, let’s say Avalokiteshvara; or Avalokiteshvara in front of us, and doing the visualizations of the mantra as if it were coming from in front of us. So that’s our focus. And then the third one is Avalokiteshvara in our heart. So ourselves as the Buddha-figure, Avalokiteshvara, and then sitting in our heart, Avalokiteshvara, and the mantra coming from there. And when we say the mantra then there are also the lights going out, and so on.
And then the fourth one is to focus on the letters in the heart of these various figures. So either just ourselves as Chenrezig, and then a moon disc, and then the syllables of the letters of the mantra on the moon disc, going out (the sound) as we recite the mantra. (And in all of this we imagine that we’re making the sound of the mantra.) Or in the heart of the Chenrezig in front of us, that you have a moon disc and the syllables, and we’re focusing on that as we say the mantra. Or ourselves as Avalokiteshvara, in our heart another Avalokiteshvara, smaller; and in his heart, a moon disc with the syllables.
So it`s a matter of what are we focusing on while we are reciting the mantra.
Question: Do we require a special empowerment or initiation to do these visualizations?
Alex: No. If you have received a full empowerment, you can visualize yourself as Chenrezig. Let’s say if you have received the empowerment of Thousand-Armed Chenrezig, and then you receive the subsequent permission of the Four-Armed Chenrezig, you can visualize yourself as the Four-Armed Chenrezig. But if you have not received an empowerment then the only visualization that you could do is of the Chenrezig in front of you. So you can do the practice, but it’s the Chenrezig in front of you as we’re reciting the mantra.
And you don’t have to do the four in a particular sequence. You don’t have to do all four. But there are four different things that one can practice. It’s good to have variations like that, because when we’re doing for instance a retreat… It is a serviceability retreat, is what it’s called; to make the layrung (las-rung), in Tibetan. It’s to make the mind serviceable, which means that it can do what we want it to do with the practices, that we are familiar enough with the practice, and with reciting a hundred thousand mantras or a million mantras (it’s different in each of the practices).
The standard way in which you follow this is that if the mantra has less then fifteen (I think it’s fifteen, if I remember it correctly) syllables, then you recite a hundred thousand times for each syllable. So to do the serviceability retreat, the layrung, of Avalokiteshvara, you have to recite the mantra six hundred thousand times. If you’re doing it of Tara (OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA) that’s ten syllables, so you have to recite it a million times.
Question: Who is counting that?
Alex: How do you count that? You just count. A million is not—I mean that’s not so difficult, it’s not so impossible.
Participant: I have never done that before.
Alex: Not so impossible. It’s very simple. I mean, you can… I mean, the easiest way, the way that I always do it, is with rocks or pieces of rice or something like that. So you have…
No, no, it’s very easy. Let’s say you’re going to do a thousand mantras in a session. Then you have a pile of ten marbles (or rice or whatever it is), and then when you’ve done a hundred—you know, a rosary—you move the rice, one of the rice grains, to the side. And when you’ve done a thousand, you’ve moved all ten—so that’s a thousand. If you’ve got to do more than a thousand, you have another pile of rice and you move one of those once you have done a thousand. Not so difficult to keep count. A rosary has one hundred and eight beads, so that counts as a hundred. It’s not so difficult.
If it has more than fifteen syllables then you only need to recite it a hundred thousand times. I think fifteen was the number, if I remember it correctly.
When one is doing this type of retreat (serviceability), it’s to make the mind serviceable. So after that the mind can serve to do all the actions of—the more advanced actions of—a practice, which would be to do the fire puja, which is a purification thing that you do after this type of retreat; and the consecration of the vase; and general consecrations; and the self-initiation; and, when you become qualified enough, giving the initiation to others. So the mind becomes serviceable to do all of that by doing all this mantra recitation. And it’s nice to have a variety of different visualizations so you don’t get bored. It would be incredibly boring if you had to do the same visualization for the whole process, so it’s good to have many different visualizations. You’re making offerings to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas with some of the recitations. Lights are going out and you’re helping different beings in the different realms—you can have each of those realms as a different visualization. There’s lots of different things that we can do to add a little bit of variety while we’re doing this recitation.
Participant: I am sorry. I don’t get these four kinds of recitation. First is I am the deity. The second one is the deity in front of me.
Participant: The third one is the deity is in my heart as a deity.
Question: And the fourth one was?
Alex: The fourth one is focusing on the syllables going around the moon disc. Either just in my own heart as the deity, in the heart of the deity in front, or in the heart of the deity in my heart as the deity.
And there’s all sorts of more advanced visualizations that one does. You know, a deity in your heart, and in the heart of that deity there’s the syllables, and on the central seed syllable there’s a little dot on the top, and in that dot then there’s another deity, even smaller, and in its heart, blah blah blah… Like that. So one also can train oneself to visualize on a microscopic scale, which is very important for being able to get really perfect concentration, like a laser beam. And also visualizations in which you visualize the size of the universe. So there are many different ways that we can train the imagination, which then trains the mind to be able to become like a mind of a Buddha: to encompass everything, to be focused like a laser on tiny little objects, and so on.
In reciting the mantra like this, there are two ways of reciting. And again we can alternate, or just do one, or just do the other—whatever you like. One is called the verbal recitation, in which we recite out loud. And usually it’s not recommended to shout the mantra; that’s going to disturb your winds and breath very much. You recite it softly. And then there is what’s called the whispered recitation. And the whispered recitation is what we normally would call in the West just reciting it in your head. And that you usually do while holding your breath. These are the two types of mantra recitation that one can do. This is the initial practice that we do when we do the sadhana.
Alex: Well, when you’re doing… The question is, when we do this serviceability retreat—you know, an ordinary retreat, we’re not talking about a three-year retreat of the thing—then we can alternate. It doesn’t matter. Verbal or whispered; it doesn’t matter. Sometimes when you do the recitation of the mantra then you just want to shape your breath, and so you don’t have to say it really out loud. You can say it just in a way that only you could really hear it:
[whispers “OM MANI PEME HUM. OM MANI PEME HUM…”]
Like that, in which it’s still shaping the breath, but it’s not a forceful expulsion of air while you are saying it. I mean, it depends on the individual. Really you have to guide it yourself. I have asthma, I have quite terrible asthma, and I find if I say these things out loud that it aggravates my asthma having to expel so much air all the time. So you have to gauge it according to your own medical condition, your own body.
Question: So six hundred thousand Avalokiteshvara mantras in my mind is also okay?
Alex: Right. Doing it in your mind is okay, but it’s better to emphasize at least some shaping of the breath.
And of course while doing all of this the big emphasis is on what Avalokiteshvara represents, which is of course compassion. We would have compassion as a state of mind accompanying any type of practice that we do, but especially if it’s Chenrezig. It’s important to have that.
Then if we are quite skilled in this first level of mental stability, on the four types of recitation, then we can go on to the next one. That’s mental stabilization—that’s what I am translating from the word “dhyana”, actually—the mental stabilization that comes from abiding or dwelling on the flames, it’s called, staying with flames—you know, from fire. And here we imagine that the letters of the mantra standing up on the moon in our heart—either just ourselves as Chenrezig, or inside the heart of the Chenrezig in our heart (which is always better, to do it like that)—then the syllables are actually flames in the shape of the syllables. And you imagine that the flames are making the sound of the letters. It’s not that I, as Chenrezig, am making the sound of the letters, but we imagine that the flames are making the sound. That takes quite a while to be able to actually imagine that. You know, it’s not like you imagine it coming out of your mouth, that we are saying it. The flames are making the sound. And again you try to get concentration on that.
And then the third mental stabilization is the mental stabilization from abiding on the sound. And here you imagine just hearing the sound of the mantra in your heart, like an inner voice. That also is quite delicate, to be able to imagine that. So it’s just like the sound is being produced, and it’s like hearing it.
So, like this, when we combine this practice with the understanding of voidness—which of course we’re always doing—then the first type of mental stabilization goes together very nicely with understanding the voidness of the person making the sound. That’s me as the Buddha-figure. And then the abiding on the flame is the voidness of the mind as the origin of the sound. There the flames are just making the sound, so represents the voidness of the mind making the sound. And then the third is the voidness of the sound itself. You know, just the arising of the sound, which is like the nature of the mind—it just gives rise to mental holograms. So in this way we get to the nature of the mind. It can be combined with mahamudra type of practice, and so on.
And at the end of all of this, when you have mastered this third level of mental stabilization, abiding on the sound, then you have achieved combined shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha is a fully concentrated mind, stilled and settled. And vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind which comes from understanding the voidness of the person making the mantra and the mind producing the mantra, and the whole process of the voidness of the sound and the arising of mantras, and so on. That’s the procedure that is followed in kriya tantra for achieving of the five pathway minds leading to enlightenment—the first. When you have completed this, when you have achieved combined shamatha and vipashyana, that is the [final] attainment of the building-up pathway of mind (tshogs-lam), what’s called the path of accumulation by some translators.
Then you’re ready to go to the fourth mental stabilization, which is the mental stabilization on the ultimate nature of sound that brings liberation. The mental stabilization on the ultimate nature of sound that brings liberation. And so here we are focusing on the self, us, making the sound; the hearing of the sound of mantra; sound itself; and the voidness of all of this. And the difference here, what makes this a different level, is that now we are doing this with combined shamatha and vipashyana. And that’s called the yoga without signs (mtshan-med-kyi rnal-’byor). The first three is the yoga with signs (mtshan-bcas-kyi rnal-’byor).
And when we do this yoga without signs with a conceptual mind on all of this—of the voidness and the sound of the mantra, and so on—that would be the second of the five pathway minds, the applying pathway mind (sbyor-lam); or the path of preparation, many people translate it. And when it becomes nonconceptual, then it’s the seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam), the path of seeing. And then from there you go on with the accustoming pathway mind (sgom-lam), that’s the path of meditation. And then finally the pathway mind needing no more learning (mi-slob lam) when you actually achieve enlightenment.
So that is basically the outline of the kriya tantra path. A practice. How you actually would proceed on the basis of the kriya tantra practice to reaching enlightenment.
Question: What is the difference between mantra and prayer?
Alex: Prayer in Buddhism has two forms. One is called an aspiration or wishing prayer (smon-lam) in which, basically, it’s a strong wish to be able to benefit everybody, to have a clearer mind so you can benefit them better, to have a long life so that you can help others throughout a long life, help them more, and so on. And it is not that you are praying to somebody; although one can make requests, it’s called, like: “Please inspire me to be able to do this, and through the interaction of your inspiration and my wish, plus all the positive force that I’ve built up (or merit) from positive things that I am doing in practices, may I be able to achieve this.” So it’s not that you are praying to someone. It’s a strong directing of your intention, wish to achieve something.
And then there is a dedication prayer (bsngo-ba), in which we have built up a certain amount of positive force from a constructive action, whether it’s meditation, or helping somebody, or whatever it might be. And then we direct that positive force toward achieving a goal, like what we would just simply wish for in the aspiration type of prayer or wishing type of prayer. And so it’s a little bit like… The way I describe it is saving of a document that you have created on a word processor on a computer, saving it into some sort of folder—you’ve built up some positive force and you want to save it, direct it toward a goal. And if you don’t save it, it will automatically go into the goal of improving samsara. And so you don’t want it to just improve samsara, to make it that I can—I’ve meditated on voidness and now I can have an interesting, entertaining conversation with somebody about it. Not like that. But you want to actually save it, either in the liberation folder or the enlightenment folder: may this go toward achieving liberation or may it go toward achieving enlightenment.
So this is prayer. And a prayer can be either in a standard form, the way that some great master wrote it—and some of the prayers are extremely beautiful, like the tenth chapter of Shantideva’s text, Engaging in the Bodhisattva Behavior, which has a beautiful, long dedication—or it can also be something that is in your own words. But you don’t want it to just be a recitation of words without any meaning, and nothing going on in your mind. Okay.
The mantras are something else. A mantra is a set of syllables, which often are Tibetan words—not Tibetan words, I’m sorry—which often are Sanskrit words. Sometimes Tibetan sentences or words are thrown in. These are called peltsig (spel-tshig) in Tibetan; they’re something which are “thrown in”. So you say a certain mantra, like Tara mantra, and then at a certain point in the mantra you might add a Tibetan sentence of “may this increase my deep awareness and merit” and so on. Sometimes the words are added in Sanskrit, sometimes they’re added in Tibetan.
In any case, a mantra is a set of syllables. They’re often words, and in some cases they are just seed syllables that represent body or speech or mind of a Buddha. Other times they are words that seem like nonsense words, like KILI KILI SILI SILI HILI HILI, this sort of thing, which also in the commentaries will have a meaning, based often on where in the Sanskrit alphabet the first letter of it appears and then what that represents. So there are meanings to these seemingly nonsense syllables. And they are recited in order to protect the mind. This is the explanation of the word “mantra”; something to protect the mind.
And what you want to do is to, on one level, perform a type of mental judo. If the mind is racing with verbal thoughts, mental wandering—which is very unharmonious type of energy, so it goes together with our energy also being nervous and not at peace, not calm—then to protect the mind from that we, rather than try to just stop the mind from doing this (which is quite difficult to do unless you have tremendous discipline), then in a sense you use that verbal energy and flip it, like you would flip someone in judo—to use that energy to recite a mantra instead. This, personally, I found is the best method to use when you have a song going through your head that you can’t stop—which happens to me. One of the reasons why I really don’t listen to music very much is because then I sing it in my head for the next week and that drives my crazy. Because then I feel like a cricket or some sort of insect, that when the sun goes down to a certain level, then automatically I start making this noise. And I find that utterly stupid and unacceptable, and the only way that I have learned to be able to stop that is recite a mantra in your head instead. So it protects your mind from that. And you have to be quite forceful in terms of reciting the mantra and staying with it.
And it can protect the mind also from… If you have negative thoughts then recite the mantra, because each of the mantras, if it’s with the—I mean, it goes together with the Buddha-figure, and each of the Buddha-figures represents the full enlightenment of a Buddha, but also represents a certain feature as its main emphasis. So Avalokiteshvara would be compassion. So if I feel annoyed with somebody, or something like that, then you recite OM MANI PEME HUM, and remember compassion. If the mind is very dull then you might remember Manjushri and have the feeling of having clarity of mind. This is very, very helpful. I always do this when I am stuck in trying to understand something, or to explain something clearly when I am trying to write, or how to formulate it. If I am blocked, then I stop and I do Manjushri mantra.
Question: What if you are afraid of a situation?
Alex: If you are afraid of a situation? Tara. Tara protects from fear. Or the name mantra of your guru, of your spiritual teacher. There are also guru name mantras, in which you take the Tibetan name, let’s say—if it’s a Tibetan teacher—and translate that back into Sanskrit, because the Tibetan names are all translations of Sanskrit words. So if you don’t know Sanskrit you have to be told what it is, for the teacher, and what their full name is—which usually you don’t know, because if they are Rinpoches they just use the title of the Rinpoche; they don’t use the actual name. And you recite that. That’s very good for protection. Like the name mantra of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is very good.
Question: Do you also have such a mantra?
Alex: Me, personally? I have a Tibetan name which could be translated into Sanskrit, sure. Anyway, not in class. That’s something that you are interested in? [laughter]
So the mantra is to protect the mind. And on a deeper level the mantra shapes the wind, the breath. So it shapes the breath, the energy-winds; and in shaping the energy-winds it allows us to then gain control over the energy-winds, because we have given it a particular form. So it’s in a more harmonious vibration, in a sense.
And then there are very advanced practices which, on the basis of the breath being shaped into a mantra, specifically OM AH HUM, that it enables us to bring those breaths into the central channel. And the purpose for that is to reach the subtlest level of mind, what’s called the clear light (’od-gsal), which is the most efficient for understanding voidness. And it’s only that level of mind, that a—I mean a Buddha has only that level of mind, not the grosser levels of our usual type of mind.
So mantra has many, many levels of meanings. So it’s not just a prayer.
Question: Do you need some understanding of the language? If you don’t know the meaning, you just recite it like that?
Alex: Well, do we need to know the meaning of the mantra? It’s nice to know the meaning of the mantra, but I think it’s not absolutely essential to know the meaning of the mantra, of each word of the mantra. But rather what’s more important is to know what is it that my mind is generating while I’m reciting the mantra: compassion, or clarity of mind, or energy, or not being afraid, or the strong ability to deal with any situation. These sort of factors that are associated with the Buddha-figure in the mantra. To know the actual meaning of the words—helpful but not, I don’t think, absolutely necessary. I would think that most Tibetans don’t know the meaning of each word of what they’re reciting in a mantra. After all, it’s in Sanskrit; it’s not in Tibetan. Okay?
Question: If we’ve received both anuttarayoga tantra empowerments or initiations, the highest class of tantra, and also these kriya practices of Tara or Chenrezig, how do we put them together in our practice?
Alex: Well first of all Tsongkhapa himself, in a work in which he described the stages of his own spiritual development, said that unless you really have some experience of the three lower classes of tantra, you can’t really appreciate how much more effective the highest class of tantra is. Mind you, Tsongkhapa practiced and knew everything. So it’s not bad to know something about the lower classes of tantra. And hardly anybody practices the second and third classes of tantra; they are incredibly complicated, especially the third class, yoga tantra. So usually it’s kriya tantra and anuttarayoga tantra that most people have experience with.
Now we can in our daily practice do a little bit of both, of course. That’s not a problem. In terms of when we are going to emphasize one thing or another… Well for instance I was advised by my teacher as part of the preliminaries—you know, this ngondro (sngon-’gro), the type of preliminaries that you do before really getting into more intensive practice—one of the two things in the preliminaries that I was instructed to do was the six hundred thousand of Avalokiteshvara and the six hundred thousand of Manjushri, recitations of the mantra, in order to try to build up more positive force for the compassion side and the wisdom side (discriminating awareness side). So I did that. So that’s quite useful to do in the early stages of one’s practice. Definitely.
Then another aspect, regardless of what type of practice we’re doing of anuttarayoga, is at some point if you really are serious in your practice, you want to have a long life to be able to make as much progress in this life on the spiritual path, use this precious human rebirth and benefit others as much as possible. So for that the White Tara retreat is—the Long Life White Tara retreat—is very important. And that requires reciting the Tara mantra a million times.
And the fire puja is particularly difficult to do, because in the fire puja you have… It comes, basically, from a Vedic ritual; it’s not specifically Buddhist as a ritual itself. But you offer various substances into a fire with appropriate visualizations and motivation, and so on. It’s quite an elaborate, difficult ritual to do because it requires things like, not only different types of grain, but there’s a certain type of grass that grows in India, not so easy to get here. And you have to collect these pieces of grass and they’re fairly long—about maybe, I don’t know centimeters, let’s say thirty centimeters long, something like that, or a foot long in Western measurement. And you throw pairs of it, two of them together, into the fire.
Well, for the Tara retreat you have to do that, you have to throw in ten thousand of these, reciting a mantra with each one, and of course you can’t get up. So you have to do it in one sitting, along with all the other things that are part of that fire puja. And in my own case, when I did this it turned out that I did not have enough. I didn’t have enough for ten thousand. It was short of ten thousand. And so Serkong Rinpoche made me do the whole thing over again. Which was very good, very kind of him, I must say! Very kind. So that’s the Long Life Tara practice. So that’s very helpful to do.
So you take the specialties from each of the different practices, whether it’s kriya or anuttarayoga, which leads me to the question that you asked yesterday. But I think someone has a question first.
Question: How important is it to get these special materials from India?
Alex: For the fire puja, the various grains can be bought here. The different types of grass—it’s basically a grass that has sections in it, and there are grasses like that that grow in other parts of the world, not necessarily in India. We have to find them. In India it’s easier because usually you don’t have to do it yourself. You can give an offering to some monk who knows where it grows and goes and collects it for you, which is what I did. If you had no idea where to find it, it could take you an awful long time to find the thing.
And you need people who are experienced, because the fire has to be built in a certain way: You have to have a fairly simple, but not that simple, a colored powder mandala underneath the fire. You have to have certain sticks, they’re called “yam-shing”, which are a certain specific length depending on the type of fire puja that you’ve done. It has to be a certain thickness and a certain length and that’s all specified for the type of fire puja you do. It’s quite complicated. And it’s helpful to have—if you really want to know what you’re doing—to have studied the thing before doing it, and Tsongkhapa wrote quite a nice text on fire pujas.
So it is possible to get the materials here, to a certain extent. Kusha grass, you have to have some sort of kusha grass—this stuff that’s passed out in initiations—which is a type of reed. It grows in India; they make brooms out of it. But there might be something similar to that here. I don’t know. Whenever initiations are given here in the West and you’re supposed to pass out kusha grass to everybody—to put a long piece and a short piece underneath the mattress and pillow after the first day to examine your dreams—they always import it from India.
It’s not so easy in the West. Also you can’t just build a fire in the middle of Berlin to do a fire puja. So you also need—so you need a special place to do it.
Participant: I think we have it in Mauritius.
Alex: You have it in Mauritius?
Participant: We used to.
Alex: Well I would imagine that you do, because this is not exclusively a Buddhist practice; this is Hindu as well, comes from the Vedas. Right? And you imagine the fire in the form of Agni, the fire deity, which is a perfectly Indian part of the Hindu pantheon. And then in Agni’s heart is the deity that you’re practicing.
Participant: But here you can’t do it, because I think it’s not allowed.
Alex: Right, it’s not allowed. And you need an assistant: you need somebody to hand you the things when you do the fire puja. You have to sit there and it’s very hot, because you have to be close enough to be able to put things in the fire, and pour melted butter onto the fire, and stuff like that. And you are not allowed to move your hands beyond where your crossed knees are, so somebody has to give you the various items and so on. It’s very complicated.
Participant: And also the smell…
Alex: Right. The smell of the burning substances and the burning ghee, I mean the clarified butter. All of that. It’s the way that it’s done.
Participant: How realistic is it at all to do it here?
Alex: How realistic is it to do it here at all? Not on your own. You could—people do it at, for instance, the Tibetan monastery in Rikon in Switzerland. You can go there. That’s in the countryside. And you ask the monks to help you, make some offering. People do it there in the West. Or… Pardon? Samye Ling? Probably they do them.
So there are various hi-tech things. Sometimes when people in the West do group retreats (which is a very much Western thing; Tibetans don’t usually do things in groups), but sometimes, when the Westerners don’t know what they are doing, and don’t know the language—and the rituals certainly aren’t translated—then they will sort of sit around and watch somebody else do it and imagine that they’re doing it. Or somebody will actually do it for them, but they’ll help put some things in the fire, and so on. That’s not as effective as if you yourself actually put the things in the fire, obviously, make the offerings yourself. So it requires quite a bit of study.
And if you do any of these retreats, whether we’re doing the preliminary practices of a hundred thousand prostrations or we’re doing one of these serviceability retreats, they can be done either four sessions a day (you’re not doing anything else); or it could be done one session in the morning, one session at night, and during the day you do whatever; or just one session in the morning or just one session at night. If you’re doing four sessions, just that, then you set up a perimeter and you are not allowed outside of that during the retreat. If you are doing it just one session in the morning, or one at night, or both, then you don’t do that; you can go out. And if you’re doing it isolated like that, then you imagine and in your mind give permission to whoever it is that could come in to the circle—like your doctor, for example, if you get sick, people who bring you food, this type of thing.
And what Serkong Rinpoche said is most important, is that the first session you only recite three mantras. Don’t recite any more. Or prostration—you only do three prostrations, no more. Because that will be the minimum number that you have to do every day in order to maintain the retreat. You have to do something every single day in order to maintain it. If you miss a day, you have to start all over again. So if you are sick you can at least say the mantra three times, it’s not a big deal; or the prostrations three times, or even just one time. Then you’re able to maintain the continuity.
And if you do it really strictly, it should always be done in the same place. I mean, obviously, if you are doing it four sessions a day it’s only in the same place. But if you’re doing it only in the morning or only in the evening, the proper thing is that it should only be in one place. But there can be exceptions. There’s always exceptions. I was doing a retreat once and I was asked by His Holiness’s private office to translate an initiation and teaching that His Holiness was giving in another place. I was doing this in Dharamsala; His Holiness was doing this in Manali. I was in the middle of a retreat and I got that request to do this translation, so I asked Serkong Rinpoche and he said, “Don’t be silly. Of course you go to translate for His Holiness. Just do your basic minimum of the practice each day.” So there are exceptions, like that.
Participant: Clinging and being attached to overly strict rules and regulations is quite a fetter, actually.
Alex: That is true. Therefore in the discussion of the various rules of discipline in the vinaya, they always indicate when the necessity overrides the prohibition. In other words, there are always lists of situations in which you don’t have to follow the prohibition—you know, what you are not supposed to do—because necessity calls for something else. A monk is not supposed to touch a woman. But if a woman in drowning, a monk doesn’t just stand there with hands folded and say, “Oh, what a shame!” The monk would take hold of the woman and try to rescue her. So that’s the classic example that’s given.
Now the question that Jan had was: in the Gelug tradition of Tsongkhapa of anuttarayoga tantra, there is something very special that Tsongkhapa taught, which was the combined practice of the three major deities in the Gelugpa system of anuttarayoga tantra. Guhyasamaja, which is the main practice that Tsongkhapa wrote about. He wrote more about Guhyasamaja than anything else, many volumes on that, because that is the so-called king of tantras, in the sense that it has commentaries by the great Madhyamaka masters Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and Chandrakirti that explain the whole theory of tantra. So if you want to understand what’s going on in tantra, you read the commentaries to Guhyasamaja. So it’s the king of tantra; it’s in that sense. And the main thing that people study in the tantric colleges are the commentaries to Guhyasamaja—at the Gelugpa tantric colleges. And so that’s one figure. The second one is Yamantaka (or Vajrabhairava, it’s another name). And the third one is Chakrasamvara, sometimes called Heruka. And there is the combined practice of the three. And this is what you study in the tantric colleges; you learn all the rituals of these three, and textually you study the Guhyasamaja. Now what does it mean to practice these three together? There’s two stages of it, the generation stage and the complete stage. Generation stage is when you’re working with imagination doing the sadhana. And these sadhanas are very long; long sadhanas of these practices. And on the generation stage you do all three. All three. So it takes a long time to do all three so that you’re really familiar with that.
In Lama Chopa, The Guru Puja, you can combine the three in the sense that you visualize yourself as Yamantaka, the Guru in the centre of the tree of assembled figures has the Guhyasamaja body mandala (so all the different deities inside him of Guhyasamaja), and the offerings are done in the very elaborate way of Chakrasamvara. So there you combine little pieces of—you know, aspects of the three.
And the main emphasis, though, is on the complete stage practice. There is more detail about illusory body in Guhyasamaja; this is generating the form of a Buddha out of the subtle energy-winds. And clear light practice, you have more detail in Chakrasamvara—where you have tummo (gtum-mo) for example, the inner flame, and the experience of the various levels of joy in order to get to the clear light mind. So there is more detail in the Chakrasamvara practice for that. And the Yamantaka practice is the container that could contain both. And so, within the context of yourself as Yamantaka, you can bring in the more detailed elaborate practices for illusory body from Guhyasamaja and the more detailed practices for getting to the clear light mind from Chakrasamvara. And so in that way you combine the three.
And also Yamantaka is the form in which you do all protector practices. So when you call in protectors—like Mahakala, and Yamaraja, and Palden Lhamo, and these sorts of protectors—it’s always into the Yamantaka mandala, with yourself as Yamantaka. So that’s the way that they’re combined. And obviously you have to be a terribly serious practitioner to even consider doing this. And have a lot of time.
Question: If you don’t have so much time or capacity is it necessary to do this combination?
Alex: No. Every practice is going to be complete as a way to achieve enlightenment, these tantric practices. It’s just, do you want more detail? And if you want to have a more detailed, complex, full practice then you adopt that from the system that has the most detailed practice of it. This is the way it’s done. As His Holiness says, then, it’s useful if you have the capacity, and not many people do, but if you do have the capacity to… For instance, when you do a dzogchen type of practice from Nyingma, that gives you a different angle on voidness meditation and getting to the most subtle level than you would have in a Gelugpa practice. So they can help each other—if you have the capacity and you are not going to get confused. Most people would get very confused.
Question: How do you choose a main anuttarayoga practice?
Alex: Well some people ask their spiritual teacher, and they throw the dice or whatever, or they have special powers and they’re able to tell. That’s one way, of course; but that requires a really special teacher that actually is able to do this. But it’s always best if it comes a little bit from our own side, and so that would be indicated by what we have a strong inclination towards. “Inclination” means automatically we’re drawn to a certain Buddha-figure. You see all these paintings, and things like that, and there is one that especially catches your eye. And one that really you feel very comfortable with. That it’s not something that you have to force yourself to do. So that gives a little bit of an indication. And then you have to try. And then, also, everything depends upon what’s available. Of course if you have dreams of various Buddha-figures and visions and so on, that obviously is a strong indication as well. But it’s not so easy actually to really decide what is the main Buddha-figure practice that I am going to do. And in the beginning you practice many of them—I mean the way that Tibetans do.
Of course there’s the saying that in India they practice one deity and they achieved attainments, all the attainments, and the Tibetans practice all the deities and achieved nothing. There is that statement as well. But putting that aside, most Tibetans practice many of these figures and, as His Holiness says, it’s only when you are willing and able to spend twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, doing tantra practice—when you have reached that stage, you’re going to do it for the rest of your life, that then you have to focus on just one practice.
So then of course the question arises: what am I going to do at the time of death? And that’s not an easy question to answer. Obviously if we’re going to do the death meditation and visualizations and so on that are recommended in anuttarayoga tantra practice, you have to have one deity system—so that in bardo you imagine you arise in this figure or that figure. However what I found really very interesting was what His Holiness was saying in—I think it was in Schneverdingen, this place near Hamburg, where His Holiness was teaching in ’98 it was, or ’97; whenever it was. So I was listening recently to—watching recently the videos of that. And His Holiness said that actually, although theoretically these tantric practices and so on at the time of death are obviously the most effective thing, that it’s not very practical. He said that at the time of death it’s such a difficult period in your life, when you’re actually dying, and these tantric visualizations and practices are so complicated, that it runs the danger if you try to do them as you’re dying, you’re going get very confused, very frustrated; your energy is not so strong, obviously; and you’ll die in a very confused, frustrated, annoyed state of mind. That’s not good.
So, he said, far more effective when you’re dying—I mean, it’s okay, you’ve built up all the habits while you were alive, of doing this practice. That’s enough. But at the time of death you want to do something much more simple that you can actually maintain as you’re dying. And the best thing is bodhichitta. The aim is to be able to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all, and continue to have a precious human rebirth and connection with the spiritual teachers, and so on, so you can continue and reach enlightenment for the benefit of all. That’s the best thing to keep in mind when you’re actually at the time of death. Don’t try to do something really complicated; you’ll just get frustrated and confused. This I thought was wonderful practical advice and amazingly honest. And you can’t get a better source than His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Question: Why do we speak of the energy in terms of wind, and not fire?
Alex: First of all the Tibetan word “lung” (rlung, wind-energy), which translates the Sanskrit word “prana”, which is then translated into Chinese as “qi”—all of those are the words for wind. No word for energy there. And “wind” is used in the sense that it’s not something that you can see, and it flows very quickly—it blows. So it goes through your body, and it’s associated with the breath. I just add the word “energy” here because to just speak about the winds, a lot of people think we are talking about gas, and so—indigestion and stuff like that—we are not talking about that. [laughter]
Although if you think in general of the elements, the five elements in the Indian system—earth, water, fire, wind, and space—then you can also think in terms of: earth is solid, water is liquid, fire is temperature, and wind is gas, and space is just the space in-between things or the container. So in that sense it’s not so farfetched that you can talk about the material world as made up of the five elements.
Participant: Alan Wallace explained that wind is also a movement. Wind is also associated—it doesn’t correspond so well to gas, it’s also movement.
Alex: Right, so wind is also movement. But I am talking about the different states of matter. They can be in these different states. But of course wind is movement, but it’s not just movement itself—it’s an element.
Question: There’s a difference between wind and air?
Alex: What’s the difference between wind and air? No difference.
Participant: The state of the elements are solid, fluid, and air. And wind is moving air. When you use the word “wind”, you have in mind the moving. And air, it’s a gas—breathing in and out.
Alex: Well I think that we could get… I mean, you are talking about the difference between air and gas. And gas you think as some sort of nonstatic state, and wind is more motion. I don’t think that we need to get terribly technical here. Gas—the molecules are moving the quickest, compared to earth and water; so there is motion there as well. These are just analogies; they are just translations. And they never speak in terms of solid, liquid, temperature, gas, and so on. This is just to make it a little bit more acceptable to a Western mentality so that we don’t just say this is nonsense, that’s all.
And we want to work with the elements of the body in order to be able to cause the mental continuum not to give rise to, you know, a body that’s made of these type of elements that is going to be subject to sickness and old age and so on. The whole aim of everything is to reach enlightenment to be able to benefit others as much as is possible, with the type of body that a Buddha has; the type of speech that a Buddha has; the type of mind that a Buddha has; the type of activity, how a Buddha helps others; the type of blissful awareness that a Buddha has; and so on. And that’s why we practice things similar to that in tantra, similar to the result, as a way that is going to be more efficient for achieving that result than in sutra—which also works with causes for achieving this, but they’re not as closely related to the result.
So that is a nice little way of ending what we have been discussing.
And we end with a dedication, thinking whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from all this, may it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment through these methods for the benefit of all.
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