Overview of Tantra
Tallinn, Estonia, November 2006
Session Six: Differences between Sutra and Tantra (continued)
Yesterday we started our discussion of tantra, and we saw that it’s very important – to be able to practice it properly – that we need proper preparation. That preparation entails the common preparation of the main aspects of the sutra path and also the uncommon preparation (or preliminaries) which are known as the ngondro – doing a hundred thousand or more repetitions of various practices to build up more positive force and purify or cleanse ourselves of some of the negative force that would make obstacles in our practice.
And with this cleansing and building up of positive force and positive potential, then, we receive an empowerment, which is going to activate various aspects of our Buddha-nature, uplift them through the inspiration from the teacher, the tantric master who is conferring the empowerment, and from the whole procedures and what is going on in our own understanding during the empowerment (we’re not just sitting there like a baby). Then, on the basis of taking the vows during the empowerment or initiation, and actually keeping them, and doing daily practice, then we engage or embark on the tantric path.
We saw also that the tantric practice, although it has a ritual structure, that structure is just exactly that – it’s a structure on which we hang various aspects of the actual practice. The actual practice is not just the repeating of the structure of the ritual. The actual practice entails transforming our minds and our attitudes following in accordance with what the actual words of the ritual text say. This requires of course not only understanding what the words say, but also having the preparation before, so that when in the text it says everything dissolves into voidness, or we develop compassion, or we develop bodhichitta, or we take refuge – or all the various things that it says when we generate ourselves as a Buddha-figure or generate the Buddha-figure in front, and so on – that we already have some level of accomplishment with these things, so that we can just quite quickly apply it there. Otherwise, if we have absolutely no idea of the various things that the texts are saying – that now we generate this or that – then obviously all we can do is recite and sing the words, as if we were in a choir practice, and that doesn’t get us very far. So we need to really look at the tantra practice as something that is quite advanced. It’s quite complex. And, if we have started out by just merely doing the ritual, then it is very important not to leave it on that level but to fill in, through other practices, the various pieces that have to be put into the actual ritual structure.
We also were speaking about why tantra is more efficient than sutra, and we saw that one aspect of it is that the practice is closer to the result that we want to achieve. We use this word practice, and that’s not exactly a very accurate translation of the term that’s being used here. What we’re doing is actually accustoming ourselves to a certain state of mind, to a certain understanding. I mean, there are many, many states of mind and understanding that we want to achieve. And so we are accustoming ourselves through repetition, doing it over and over again. In this way, we build up a habit, so that these various states of mind start to come automatically, without any effort, without having to actually go through stages to build them up. And if we have cleansed enough negative energy from our mental continuums and put in enough positive energy – from actually helping others and doing various constructive things – then, on the basis of building up those habits and on the basis of inspiration from the teacher, we can actually start to make actual transformations in our minds, in our ways of dealing with the world, and eventually changes in our body as well. Because what we want to achieve is not only a mind of a Buddha but a body and the speech of a Buddha. So here, in tantra, what we do is practice closer to that result, so that the practice acts as a cause for reaching the result. And by practicing closer to that result, it helps us to achieve it more quickly.
Therefore, we imagine ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure, similar to the type of body that we would have as a Buddha. And all the various arms and faces and legs, the multiple figures within the mandala – within the configuration that we are imagining – all these represent different aspects of understanding or realization, like the six far-reaching attitudes (the six perfections) and so on. By representing them graphically, it helps us to actually keep all of these in mind at the same time, which is what we need to do as a Buddha, and what we need to do even as a bodhisattva beforehand trying to actually help others.
And we imagine that our environment is pure like a mandala, which is the actual habitation of these Buddha-figures. It’s usually a palace building with very special architecture features, which also each feature represents a certain insight or realization, and it’s also the environment outside of the building.
We also imagine that the way that we enjoy things – particularly, here in the sadhana practice, the offerings that are made – that we’re able to enjoy them with a blissful mind that is not associated with any confusion. We’re not worried that the offerings are going to run out, or that they’re not good enough, or that the incense will make me cough, or the food will make me fat – these types of things.
We also imagine that the way that we are acting is the way that a Buddha acts, which is to exert an enlightening influence on everyone. A Buddha doesn’t have to actually do anything with effort, consciously. Just the way that a Buddha is spontaneously accomplishes everything, in the sense that it just inspires everyone to either quiet down difficult situations, to stimulate their qualities to grow, to help bring order to chaos and everything under control, and to forcefully end dangerous situations. And of course a Buddha can manifest in any form; that happens just automatically in response to the need, on the basis of the tremendous buildup of compassion that Buddha had in the process of becoming a Buddha. So when we do the practices, we imagine that – one of the main parts of the practice – that we are the Buddha-figure and we are reciting mantra. Our speech becomes mantra, so it’s able to communicate fully to everybody in a perfect way. The mantra also is a way of shaping the breath and energy, which helps us on the path. We recite the mantra and we imagine lights and nectars go out from us, and they accomplish all these various types of actions of a Buddha.
And this is not a lie. This is not self-deception, because when we think in terms of Buddha-nature, we have all the potentials, all the factors that will allow us to actually become like this. We can label “me” on the continuity not only of the past but the continuity in the future as well. We have a mental continuum and we label “me” – for instance, now – on just a period from when we were a baby until now, and we think “Well, that’s me. And when I was a baby, that was also me. And when I was a teenager, that was also me. And now, as an adult, that’s also me.” Well, of course with the Buddhist understanding that “me” isn’t something that is solid and static and never changing. But, nevertheless, we can similarly label “me” onto when we’re going to be an old person, and we can label “me” onto future rebirths as well, and we can label “me” on the future Buddha that we will become as well.
And so, on that basis, we can develop what is sometimes translated as the divine pride or dignity of actually being this Buddha-figure. We need to, on the first hand, have our minds not produce our ordinary appearances but have them produce a pure appearance, like these Buddha-figures and so on, and without the grasping at them as solidly existent; nevertheless, label “me” onto that, and assume this divine pride. When doing the practice, as is always emphasized in the meditation texts, this divine pride, this feeling of actually being the Buddha-figure, is far more important in the beginning than the clarity of the visualization. Clarity of the visualization and the details will improve with improved concentration and familiarity, so it’s not the thing to work on in the beginning. The thing to work on in the beginning is this divine pride, which means, in our ordinary language, a feeling of actually “Yes, I am now a Buddha” – but of course knowing that we’re not actually really a Buddha; but, working with these Buddha-nature factors, that I can become a Buddha and I can act like a Buddha. It’s like we’re rehearsing in a play; but it’s not children’s play, because we understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. This is important to realize – that it’s not self-deception, although it is working with our imagination.
In tantra practice we have two stages. Depending upon the class of tantra that we’re following, the stages are explained slightly differently. But in kriya tantra, the first class of tantra, we speak in terms of a stage with a sign and without a sign. This is referring to the level of understanding of voidness that we have. In the practice either, with the first stage, we have a conceptual cognition of voidness, and with the second stage we have a nonconceptual. When they say that the first stage deals more with visualization and the second stage deals more with voidness – this is the way it’s explained in Kagyu, Sakya, and Nyingma texts – we shouldn’t think that means that with the first stage we have no understanding of voidness. That is absolutely incorrect and misleading. What it’s referring to is whether or not our understanding of voidness is conceptual or nonconceptual. We discussed this difference between conceptual and nonconceptual cognition yesterday; no need to repeat that.
In the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra – to which Kalachakra belongs, as well as Yamantaka, Vajrayogini, and Heruka you have here in the thangka – the two stages are called the generation stage and the complete stage. The generation stage is when we work with our imagination, with these visualizations. And the complete stage – sometimes translated as the completion stage, although I don’t like that translation; I think it’s misleading. The complete stage is when… It’s not that we are completing what we did before. According to the explanations in the text, it’s that now everything is complete. We have all the tools to be able now, at this stage, to actually work with the subtle energy-systems (the chakras, and the channels, and the winds, and so on) in order to dissolve the energy-winds and get to the clear-light level of mind, which is the whole point of the anuttarayoga practice, the highest class of tantra practice – to reach that stage of mind at subtlest level – because that is automatically nonconceptual, it automatically doesn’t make appearances of true existence or true nonexistence or anything like that, and it will be the most efficient – if we can get the understanding of voidness with that – that’s the most efficient for cutting through the true causes of our problems and the problems themselves (first two noble truths).
On that complete stage, we’re able to actually generate – not just in our imagination, but with either the energy-winds themselves in the non-Kalachakra systems, or, in the Kalachakra system, as a reflection of the clear-light mind itself (Kalachakra is slightly different here) – but actually we’re able to generate an actual body that will become the direct cause of a body of a Buddha and it’s not just in the imagination. In the non-Kalachakra systems, what’s called illusory body can actually leave your physical body, go out and do things. For instance, there are some people that that body is able to leave and they’re able to – while they’re in meditation or whatever – the illusory body can read texts or do various things – help others. In the Kalachakra system, the equivalent is called the devoid form, and that is generated differently – it’s generated within the central channel – and is not able to leave the physical body. But these are technical differences between the Kalachakra and non-Kalachakra systems. Kalachakra is quite unique in the presentation of this complete stage.
Okay. That was an awful lot of information. Why don’t we take a little bit of pause and digest a little bit what I said.
The main point is that we are practicing in tantra with methods (body, and speech, and state of mind, and activities, and way of enjoying things, and so on) and with qualities (imagining that we have the full compassion of a Buddha or the full abilities of a Buddha to help others) that are closer to the result. And so, by practicing closer to the result – while knowing that we’re not there yet, but knowing that we are able to achieve that because of Buddha-nature – then that acts a more efficient cause for reaching that goal more quickly.
The second point of why tantra is more efficient is that there’s a closer union of method and wisdom (or discriminating awareness, I prefer to call it). Here we want to be able to achieve a body and mind of a Buddha, which are of course always together. You can’t just have one of those. You always have the two inseparably: a body and a mind of a Buddha. (We have a body and mind inseparably now, as well, even if it’s a very subtle body during the death period – subtlest energy.) And so what we want to do is to build up the causes for the body and the mind of a Buddha also simultaneously.
In sutra the main cause for the body of a Buddha is bodhichitta and all the practices of building up positive force, and so on, by helping others by acting constructively. Whereas the main cause for the mind of a Buddha is the understanding of voidness – focus on voidness. Well, these two, it’s not possible because… This gets very, very complicated because so many different explanations are there, in terms of how you practice these two in our sutra practice. So not only are there differences among all the different Tibetan traditions here, but even various authors, masters within the traditions, are going to explain it differently. What they would agree on, however, is that you can’t have bodhichitta and the focus on voidness simultaneously, in one state of mind, with both being directly perceived. And I don’t want to get into the details of how the mind focuses on things and all the different levels and ways in which you can focus on things; it’s very complex. You can see this all on my website if you really want to go into it in depth. You are warned, however, that it’s very complex.
In any case, bodhichitta is focused on our future enlightenment, and the way that it focuses on it is with the intention to achieve it – there’s two intentions – with a background of love and compassion, the wish to help everybody to become happy and to eliminate, to overcome their suffering (with that as a background, as sort of the cluster around it). Bodhichitta focused on our own individual future enlightenment that we haven’t achieved yet, with the two intentions – to achieve it and to help everybody by means of that achievement. Okay? So that is one type of mind that it is focusing on an object with a certain hold, a certain way of taking that object – we want to achieve this in order to help everybody. Whereas voidness – when you focus on voidness, the way that the mind is focusing on that object is “there’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing.” You have an understanding of what these impossible ways of existing are, and then you cut it off. And the way it focuses is “there’s no such thing.” Just like that, nothing else.
Now these are two very different ways of focusing on an object, and so it’s not possible to have both of these simultaneously in one moment of focus, having them both be manifest as ways of understanding. You can just have one being held by the force of the other, or by the habit of the other, or by being unconscious (if we can use the Western term) – without getting too technical here – there’s various ways in which you get around this, but you can’t have them both manifestly in one moment of mind with the same consciousness. But these are the causes for a body and mind of a Buddha, and you want to be able to have a body and mind simultaneously manifest in one moment of consciousness (one mind). So in tantra what we do is we use this method of imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure or generating ourselves as a Buddha-figure, and that it is possible to have simultaneously with the understanding – the nonconceptual cognition of voidness.
Here there’s a difference between the way that Gelugpa explains it and the way that the other traditions (Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya) explain it here. It’s appropriate to mention the Kagyu way of explaining it, which is that when you speak about the two truths of things (of any phenomenon), the two truths are the appearance and how it exists. Appearance would be, here, in terms of a Buddha-figure. And how it exists is, on a conceptual level, without true existence, without solid existence; and the nonconceptual level, we’re speaking about beyond words and concepts, so beyond the words with impossible existence, or without impossible existence, or in some way both, or in some way neither. So beyond all of that.
Now appearances can also be an appearance with true existence – I mean, that’s the usual type of thing with solid existence – that’s an impure appearance, but there’s also a pure appearance. And a pure appearance is again beyond words and categories – not appearing as truly existent, or not appearing as not truly existent, not appearing in any of these categories. So these two facts about things are inseparable. You always have the two.
When you get the nonconceptual state focused on voidness – according to Kagyu – then, at that time, the mind (because it’s focused on voidness beyond words and concepts) can also produce a pure appearance of a body also beyond words and concepts. So it is possible, at least on the nonconceptual level, to have these two simultaneously. You can’t have the two simultaneously on the conceptual level because conceptual level voidness – no such thing as true existence – and then whatever impure appearance there is does have true existence, so you can’t have the two in one moment of mind. But on a nonconceptual level you can. Because of that, which is… I’m sorry, a little bit complicated, what I just explained. But because of that reason – that you can actually, before achieving Buddhahood, have the two (method and wisdom) causes for a body and mind of a Buddha simultaneously in one mind both manifest, at least on this nonconceptual level – then we have a more efficient method.
So there’s a closer way of making a union of method and wisdom if you take – as method – illusory body or some type of body as a Buddha-figure, rather than just taking bodhichitta. In tantra, of course, bodhichitta is also a method – there’s never the abandonment of bodhichitta – but we have this special method which is, in the non-Kalachakra systems, illusory body or a body of a deity (however we want to call it), and, in Kalachakra, a special type of body – the devoid form.
So let’s think about that for a moment.
Before we reach this nonconceptual stage – which is very, very difficult to achieve, and going to take a great deal of time – but while we’re doing our ordinary practice, conceptually, what we imagine, then, is our mind understands voidness. Everything has to be done within the context of voidness; that’s very important. Any generation of Buddha-figure that is done always starts with dissolving our ordinary appearances, our ordinary grasping at appearances, dissolving with our understanding of voidness. Mind makes things appear as truly existent, solidly, as if they had lines around them, isolated from everything else, and we grasp at that – in the sense that we believe that that’s true. So we have to – with our understanding that there’s no such thing as this, this is impossible, things don’t exist that way – we dissolve that, stop doing that. And within that understanding of “no such thing,” then, what we try to do is that the mind understands that, but of course a mind is inseparable from a body – you don’t have just a mind by itself – and so that body of me that has this understanding appears as a Buddha-figure. That’s the way that we put the two together conceptually when we’re still doing conceptual practices – which is what we’re going to undoubtedly be doing for our entire lives because to achieve nonconceptual is unbelievably advanced and difficult. So we put that together this way, within my understanding of voidness – so you try to keep that at least in the background if we’re not focusing on that all the time, but at least in the background – that none of these visualizations, “me,” and everything else – nothing has true, solid existence. And the body which is the support for this is appearing in the form of a Buddha-figure.
Now you can say “Well, what’s the difference between having that appearance of that body be my ordinary body, human body, and being the form of a Buddha-figure?” And this is the third advantage of tantra – that we have a special basis for voidness. We’re not just understanding the voidness of our ordinary body; we’re understanding the voidness of a Buddha-figure body that we have, that that doesn’t exist in impossible ways.
First of all, our ordinary body doesn’t transform into a body of a Buddha. Our ordinary type of samsaric body – you have to leave that completely; that doesn’t transform, because an ordinary body is something that’s subject to old age, and sickness, and death, and these types of things. Whereas the Buddha-figure body that we’re working with is something that does transform into a body of a Buddha because it arises with a mind that understands voidness and based on the Buddha-nature factors that we have. And so this is a very important point.
The second point is that if we think in terms of the voidness of our ordinary body, then the ordinary body – the appearance of an ordinary body – arises from our mind that’s affected by… First of all, it appears truly existent, and it is with a mind that’s affected by disturbing emotions. So it’s very hard to think of your ordinary body – to visualize your ordinary body, or just think of your ordinary body – without there being attachment, because we are so used to attachment to our body. Or it could be with dislike for our body because I’m fat, or I’m too thin, or I’m ugly. Or it could be pride – I’m so pretty. There’s disturbing emotions that are associated with our ordinary body – my knees hurt from sitting, and so on – and so that, in a sense, infects our focus on the voidness of our ordinary body, so that focus on voidness is not so stable. Whereas when we focus on the voidness of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, that Buddha-figure is not infected by previous moments of this tainted cognition. In other words, up until when we do the meditation, our way of focusing on our ordinary body is with all of these disturbing emotions, so it infects it. Whereas with a Buddha-body, a Buddha-form, we don’t have that as the background. And so, in this sense, focusing on a Buddha-body as a basis for voidness is something that is far more efficient.
The third point is that if we focus on the voidness of our ordinary body, the basis for that voidness – the ordinary body – is changing all the time. So sometimes you feel hungry, sometimes you have an itch, sometimes your knees hurt, so the basis is changing all the time. Because it’s changing all the time, it’s difficult to maintain a stable focus on the voidness of that body. Whereas if you think in terms of a Buddha-body, this Buddha-figure body that we’re visualizing, that doesn’t change – the Buddha-figure doesn’t get hungry, the Buddha-figure doesn’t have an itch, and so on, doesn’t get old, doesn’t get tired – it’s always the same, even though you can say from moment to moment it’s fresh, but it’s always the same. (Our regular body is in a slightly different position and comfortable and uncomfortable. A Buddha-figure stays the same.) And so, because of that, the focus on the voidness of that Buddha-figure is far more stable; you can always come back to the same basis for voidness and the voidness of it. That’s a big advantage.
In sutra, our ordinary body is a gross form; it appears to both our eye consciousness and mental consciousness. Whereas in tantra this Buddha-body is a subtle form that appears only to mental consciousness. And because it only appears to mental consciousness, it’s easier to understand that it doesn’t have solid existence.
So these are the great advantages of working with a Buddha-body – a Buddha-figure body – and the voidness of that, rather than working with our own ordinary bodies and the voidness of that body. Our ordinary body doesn’t transform into the body of a Buddha; this Buddha-figure body does. Our ordinary body has a whole background of disturbing emotions associated with it; the Buddha-figure doesn’t. Our own body, ordinary body, is changing all the time, so focusing on the voidness of it is not so stable; whereas a Buddha-figure stays the same. And our ordinary body we can see with our eyes, so it appears to be quite solid; whereas the Buddha-figure is only something which we know mentally, so it’s easier to understand that it doesn’t have solid existence.
So let’s focus on that for a moment.
The final point of why tantra is more efficient than sutra is only relevant for the highest class of tantra. This is that the mind that focuses on voidness is, in the highest tantra, the subtlest mind of clear light (this is when we’re talking about nonconceptual focus on voidness). This is the whole point of the, as I was saying, of the highest class of tantra – is to access this subtlest clear-light mind and to use that as the mind that focuses on voidness.
In general tantra, anuttarayoga tantra – and here we would include Kalachakra – we have two systems. We have the Nyingma system (the dzogchen system), and we also have the non-dzogchen system. Actually, I should take back this point about Kalachakra; I’ll explain it later. In the New Tantra systems – that’s Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelugpa – as exemplified by things like the six yogas of Naropa or the six yogas of Niguma, and so on, we have to actually work with the subtle energy-systems (the chakras, and the channels, and so on) to dissolve the winds, the grosser winds. Because, remember, we were saying that when we talk about mind, we have mental activity – that’s what mind is actually referring to – and the energy of that mental activity. So the energy – which is talking about these winds – the energy is inseparable from the mental activity. If you work with that mental activity… I mean, if you work with those energies, and dissolve them, naturally the level of mind that is associated with that – those energies will also dissolve. And so all this work with the channels and the winds, and so on, is intended to be able to bring all the winds into the central channel, particularly into the heart chakra – the center of the heart chakra in the central channel – and dissolve these winds there. When you dissolve these winds there, then the grosser levels of mind that, in a sense, ride on these winds will also dissolve, and you get to the clear-light mind – which was there all the time anyway but just not actually functioning. That’s one way of accessing it.
The other way of accessing this clear-light mind in the non-dzogchen systems, including Kagyu, would be to work with a blissful awareness: that when you generate through very special yogas, after already having control of the energy-winds, a blissful awareness (or consciousness) within the central channel – which is unbelievably difficult to do – then that is a conducive method for getting the winds to become more subtle and eventually dissolve. This is what tummo (gtum-mo) is all about. Tummo is not to keep you warm in the winter – I mean, that’s a trivial side effect of tummo – it’s to generate this blissful awareness within the central channel, and to have various energies and so on move within the central channel in the process of dissolving the winds there. It’s very, very advanced. One can sort of play with it and practice similar to it on earlier stages, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re actually doing tummo if you don’t have (1) absolutely perfect concentration and (2) control over the energy-winds already by having done a tremendous amount of work with these special yogas.
So, in any case, these are the two methods. So father tantra classification of anuttarayoga tantra – father tantra emphasizes work with the winds. Mother tantra emphasizes work with the blissful types of awareness. And there are many practices that combine both. So, in any case, that’s okay.
Dzogchen, on the other hand – the Nyingma system – will practice with the energy channels and these sorts of things as a preliminary. But once you have actually done that, then when you actually do the dzogchen method itself, then, what you try to do is to recognize, in between various moments of the mind, this underlying layer or level of clear-light mind – in this case called rigpa (pure awareness). In the process of recognizing it, then, because you have done all this practice with the channels beforehand, the winds will automatically dissolve. So, at that point, you don’t have to consciously dissolve the winds. That difference between the two accomplishes the same thing. So we have these two types of systems.
And Kalachakra actually, although traditionally it came into Tibet after the Nyingma period, during the New Tantra period – so it only came into Tibet in the eleventh century – nevertheless, there are Nyingma commentaries to it. So there can be a dzogchen style of practice of Kalachakra, although in the Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug traditions it’s done in the new method of actually working with the energy-winds directly.
So, anyway, what is special then about tantra is this clear-light level of mind that one works with, that one tries to access through a variety of different methods. Either, on the one hand, working with the winds or with these type of blissful awareness; or on the other hand, in the dzogchen system, just recognizing that clear-light mind, based on inspiration from the teacher, a tremendous amount of practice beforehand, and also having done work with the channels beforehand – but, at the actual time, just directly recognizing that level of mind. So this is special about tantra. And that clear-light mind (or rigpa mind) automatically is nonconceptual, automatically is able to make both voidness and appearance appear simultaneously without making an appearance of solid existence, and so on. It’s that level of mind that continues to become the mind of a Buddha. Our gross levels of mind don’t become the mind of a Buddha. A Buddha doesn’t have our ordinary type of gross mind of sense perception, doesn’t have our ordinary mental consciousness of thinking and conceptual thought, and dreaming, and that sort of stuff. Buddha only has the subtlest clear-light mind or, in the Nyingma system, rigpa.
So let’s think about that for a moment.
Okay. That concludes our general presentation of tantra. Before we go on to our discussion of Kalachakra, do you have any questions? Mind you, I realize that we covered a lot of material very quickly and that’s not so easy to digest, but perhaps there’s something that already you have a question about.
Question: Can you please explain once more this difference between mother and father tantras – how they work with dissolving these energies.
Alex: Right. The question is: Could I explain a little bit more about the difference between father tantra and mother tantra and how they work to help us to achieve the clear-light mind. Father tantra would be, for instance, Yamantaka and Guhyasamaja are the main ones, Vajrapani as well – Mahachakra Vajrapani is the form – and these work with primarily the energy-winds. First you work with the energy-winds of the senses and trying to dissolve those energy-winds that are associated with seeing, hearing, and smelling, tasting, physical sensation. And you actually generate the winds that are associated with them into different forms of Buddha-figures and dissolve them. This is very difficult to do.
Then you work with something called vajra breathing, which is to transform the breath – our normal breath in the breathing process – into the shape of a mantra, OM AH HUM. Our ordinary mantras, like OM MANI PEME HUM and so on, shape the breath in a certain way that help us to remain mindful of the main emphasis of each of these figures. So OM MANI PEME HUM helps us to shape the breath and the energy with understanding of focus on compassion. Or Manjushri, with clarity of mind, with discriminating awareness to understand, and so on. But, on this deeper level – this vajra breathing – the mantra’s actually to shape the breath and the energy-winds in the process of bringing it into the central channel. That’s called isolated speech (isolated from its ordinary aspects). (The first one – with the senses – is isolated body.) Through processes like this, and then bringing the winds in a very conscious way to the heart chakra and dissolving them – in what’s called isolated mind – you get to the clear-light state. What’s most difficult is to dissolve the winds that are the surface of the skin – those are the most difficult ones – so there are special practices for that.
In mother tantra, we have Chakrasamvara or Heruka (that’s another name for Chakrasamvara), and Vajrayogini, and Hevajra. These are the most common ones. Gelugpa would classify Kalachakra there. Non-Gelugpa would not classify Kalachakra there but would call it a nondual tantra, but that’s a technical difference of how you define these classes. In mother tantra, what you work with are things like tummo, which are intended to help us to develop – it’s focusing more on blissful awareness and experiencing blissful awareness in the various chakras going down and up in the central channel, and, in this way, experiencing more and more intense levels of blissful awareness. And it’s, mind you, blissful awareness of voidness. It’s certainly nothing to do with sexual bliss or particularly the bliss of orgasm – that’s absolutely not allowed – and one has to have control over the energy-winds so it doesn’t degenerate into orgasmic type of bliss. You work with this, generating more and more intensive levels of blissful awareness in the central channel, in the chakras, and that helps the winds to dissolve; that’s not actually working mechanically with the winds to dissolve them, but it is a state of mind that is very conducive for the winds to dissolve. And so mother tantra emphasizes that.
But we shouldn’t think that you don’t work with blissful awareness in father tantra and you don’t work with the winds in mother tantra. It’s just a matter of which of these two methods has the most emphasis and the most detail. You could have a practice with this blissful awareness – tummo – and tummo is particularly in mother tantra, but you can have something similar to that, of the blissful awarenesses, and you just think, well, the chakras. Or you could have an unbelievably complicated mother tantra practice in which you have all the channels around the chakras, and syllables on all the channels, and stuff like that, that provide more detail so that your focus is more precise.
So these are the differences.
Nondual tantra is defined differently by different masters, and it’s a very complex topic – of what actually is nondual tantra. Normally it’s just Kalachakra (and in the Sakya system, Hevajra as well is nondual). It has emphasis on both types of practice, to put it in the simplest way. There are many other ways of defining it.
So that’s a little bit about mother and father tantra. Often people will follow just one or another. Or in the Gelug tradition, for example, Tsongkhapa was very strong on combining the two. In the Gelug tradition, Yamantaka is the tantra within which you can combine the two most easily. So that’s done in the Gelug tradition; I really have no idea within the Drigung Kagyu whether Yamantaka is used in a similar way. I think you have to remember that each of these Buddha-figures is found in so many of the different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, so again they become like a structure, a framework. And within that framework of that Buddha-figure, you can practice differently on the complete stage, with slightly different emphasis and so on. Also, each of these Buddha-figures will have different lineages; each of them will have several different forms. Like Avalokiteshvara can be with two hands, with four hands, with a thousand arms, could be sitting, could be standing, could be white, could be red – there’s so many different forms. This is not so surprising. The figures have to suit the times, suit the practitioner. Slightly different emphasis – different lineages that come in.
One of the things that His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained was that tantra practice has to be kept private. There’s a big emphasis on secrecy. Secrecy is not that you have to hide something but that you have to keep it private. Because if it’s public and people don’t understand, particularly with the imagery of a mother and father in union, and so on – and like Yamantaka with horns, so people thinking it’s the Devil and that you’re doing devil-worship – then the practice loses its sacredness. It’s important that to the practitioner it’s something that is sacred, something that is really special. If other people are making fun of it, and laughing at it, and saying weird things about it, and then we become defensive about it, then it loses all its sacred energy. I find it really quite sad when you have Kalachakra t-shirts and, you know – next there’ll be a Kalachakra ashtray. And this is really… It loses any type of sacred feeling or holy feeling. Therefore, as His Holiness said, that it’s in situations like that that Vajradhara – that’s the form that Buddha takes in the tantras – Vajradhara will reveal a new form of a deity, of a Buddha-figure, a slightly different form of practice, to some highly realized mahasiddha – a great practitioner with realizations, like Garchen Rinpoche, or one of these people – and then this will become more appropriate for that time because then again this can be kept something private. And so this is one of the reasons why there are repeated manifestations and visions of different forms of the Buddha-figures and slightly different ways of practicing.
Any other question?
Question: What is the nature of the winds?
Alex: What is the nature of the energy-winds? Well, anything has both a conventional nature and a deepest nature. The deepest nature of the winds, like the deepest nature of anything, is its voidness; it doesn’t exist as something with a big solid line around it, all by itself, as winds. But as energy, I think… I don’t know. Wind – I tend to think of it as energy. One can also think of it in terms of gas (in terms of solid, liquid, and gas) if you want to work with the elements – of earth is solid, water is liquid, wind is gas, and fire is heat (which involves motion). That’s one way of looking at it. But the winds in… It’s a difficult thing.
Conventionally what are they? They are movements of energy, I think, within the body. There are traditionally ten winds that are discussed. There are the five winds or energies of each of the senses. We have something like that in the West as well, in terms of the neural energy, the electric firing, and so on, in the brain from the various senses. So it would be vaguely equivalent to that. Then there are five other winds which are associated with – well, it’s hard to actually localize them because each of the winds has five subdivisions and it’s not so obvious how they’re all put together into one system. But you have certain winds that are involved with digestion, there are certain winds that are involved with motion of the body, there are certain winds that are involved with life support. As I said, there are five winds like this that are basically associated with bodily functions. [For instance] there’s the downward-going wind that is the energy for expelling things from the body, whether it’s waste or sexual substances. There is the upward-going energy, which has to do with things coming in or out of the body through swallowing or spitting, breathing – the breath going in and out – that type of energy. There are these different types of energies.
There’s also, in Kalachakra – which is quite special – it speaks about the winds of karma. Kalachakra has a very special explanation of the subtle body. In Kalachakra we have the presentation of four types of subtle drops. Drops are like kernels of energy or… It’s hard to say what a drop is, but there are four special drops in Kalachakra, in a samsaric body. The winds of karma are the energy behind the karmic impulses to do something, and they make appearances. So it’s not just to… Remember, the winds, the subtle winds, also are the substance, in a sense, of mental holograms. Like there would be the substance of dream images, this type of thing, but also the mental holograms of our vision, and hearing, and so on. Because when you hear, we only hear one sound at a time, but then we understand a word and we understand a sentence. Well, you can’t hear a whole word or a whole sentence at one time, so it’s a mental hologram that puts it all together and that’s what we hear and understand. So these holograms are very important to understand. Sometimes just translated as appearances, but I think hologram is a better way of understanding it for us in the West.
The winds of karma will pass through one of these four drops and make the appearances of four different occasions. There are appearances of when we’re awake; it’s going to make those mental holograms of when we’re awake. And remember that a mental hologram is not just visual; it’s a hologram of sound, hologram of smell, hologram of taste, hologram of physical sensation as well. So you can have these appearances, these holograms of when we’re awake; it’s the drop at the middle of the forehead. There’s a drop at the throat which, when the winds of karma pass through that, then it makes the appearances of dreams – sights, sounds, etc., within dreams, physical sensations within dreams. It passes through the drop at the heart channel, then we get the appearances of deep sleep without dreams, which would basically just be an appearance of blackness or darkness. And when it passes through the drop at the navel chakra, then we get the appearances of moments of extreme bliss; it’s referring to the hologram of bliss with orgasm – that type of hologram – of that actual physical sensation.
So the winds of karma are associated with this process. I often explain it as the winds of karma being like a paintbrush and these four drops being like buckets of paint, and the winds of karma will pass through the drop, like the brush going into this particular bucket of paint, and then will paint a hologram of the four different occasions. And so in ordinary anuttarayoga practice, or general tantra practice, you always think of OM AH HUM at the three chakras – the forehead, and throat, and heart chakra – in order to dissolve winds there. In Kalachakra you always have four – OM AH HUM HOH (the syllable at the navel chakra) – because you want to dissolve these winds and have them stop going through these four drops and dissolve.
So energy-winds are a very complex topic. And conventionally what are they? I think just movements of energy. But on the deepest level, they are certainly devoid of any impossible way of existing.
Let’s take our break and then we’ll continue.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (35%)