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Home > Advanced Meditation > Tantra Teachings > Overview of Tantra > Session Seven: Kalachakra

Overview of Tantra

Alexander Berzin
Tallinn, Estonia, November 2006

Session Seven: Kalachakra

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:48 hours)

Powa (Transference of Consciousness)

Before the pause we were speaking a little bit about some of the features of mother and father tantra, as one of the questions. Another feature that I should mention that we have in mother tantra, because I know that many of you are practicing this, is powa (’pho-ba), the transference of consciousness.

And powa – one needs to remember or keep in mind that the whole purpose of powa is for our mental continuum at the time of death, which is a very special time, to be able to go to a situation that is going to be most conducive for intensive practice to reach enlightenment, and not at all going to a paradise where you just relax and sit by the swimming pool, play cards, in a pure land. A pure land is a place where you don’t have an ordinary samsaric body and you’re able to practice intensively, receive teachings and practice intensively, 24 hours a day. You don’t have to sleep, you don’t have to eat, you don’t have to do anything like that. So it is not a vacation. It is a situation of unbelievably hard work, but everything is conducive for that hard work. I think a lot of people sometimes get a misconception that powa into a pure land is going to some sort of paradise, and they think of it as just blissfully wonderful and that’s it. That’s not the point.

There are three levels of powa – Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya powas. The supreme form of powa is the Dharmakaya, in which the mind… Remember, what is the whole point of the highest class of tantra? It’s to get to this clear-light state of mind, because with that clear-light state of mind, generated as a blissful awareness and generated as a blissful awareness of voidness, it’s the most efficient for cutting through all the obscurations and reaching enlightenment. So Dharmakaya powa is directly into that clear-light state, staying within that clear-light state. So you have to be very, very advanced. But that’s really the powa that one should be aiming for, the type of powa that just through the force of the practice one is able to instantly transfer to that state.

Then the Sambhogakaya level would be if we are already an arya bodhisattva – in other words, we have nonconceptual cognition of voidness as a bodhisattva – and then we’re able to go to a pure land and receive teachings from a Sambhogakaya, a subtle form of a Buddha that teaches this very high level of practitioner. If we’re not at that level, then there’s Nirmanakaya powa to a pure land in which a lesser type of manifestation of a Buddha teaches.

This is a feature that we have in mother tantra. But it’s important to not say “Well, I don’t have to do anything in this lifetime because when I die I can go to a pure land, or some lama is going to transfer my consciousness to a pure land.” That can often be an excuse for laziness – not really trying very hard in this lifetime. It’s far better to put a great deal of effort in this lifetime, in trying to achieve these various attainments and levels of accomplishment on the path. And powa is just a last resort at the time of death if we’re not able to do what is known as the death-juncture meditation – which is, as the winds naturally dissolve during the death/dying process, that we focus on voidness during that process so we die very, very consciously – so that automatically, when we get to the clear light of death, we’re able to use that in our practice – focus on voidness during that time.

Anyway, that’s a little bit about powa, since I know that some of you practice that. It’s important to put it within the general context of tantra and tantra practice, because it is a tantra practice. It’s part of the six yogas of Naropa; that’s where we find it.

Then of course there’s so many different types of pure lands. And I must say that I don’t think it makes any difference whatsoever, whether it’s the pure land of Amitabha, or Vajrayogini, or whoever – there are many, many different pure lands – it depends on what Buddha-figure we have been practicing and feel a close bond with. They’re all equivalent. You can’t say that one is better than another.

Think about that for a moment and then perhaps you have a question about powa.

OK. Any question?

Question: If we work with channels and drops and so on, should we always keep in the background the knowledge of voidness – that all this is only mental labeling – or should we really try to imagine these things truly exist if we do this practice?

Alex: Okay. So the question is: When we work with chakras and channels and winds, do we need to keep in mind the understanding of voidness or should we think that they truly exist? Nothing truly exists isolated, by itself, independent of labeling and causes and conditions, and so on.

Please keep in mind that working with chakras and channels is not an exclusively Buddhist practice; it’s something that we find in Hindu tantra as well. And so it is very important that our practice – if we are practicing a Buddhist path, to make it a Buddhist practice, don’t make it a Hindu practice. That means that our working with the chakras and channels needs to be within the context of practicing causes to reach enlightenment. That means with bodhichitta, and understanding of voidness, and visualization of ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure. You don’t have any of those in Hindu tantra. So just to work with the channels and the chakras is no special Buddhist practice. So yes, you need some understanding of the voidness of what you’re doing, and bodhichitta – the aim, why I’m doing it – and within the container of the body in the form of a Buddha-figure.

You’re asking if we do the practice with the chakras and the channels without the Buddhist container – well, it just acts as a cause for furthering samsara. Now it depends what our motivation is. If the motivation is to gain power and so on, in order to do destructive things, then obviously that has one type of result. Within samsara, if we want to gain power – a big ego trip to be able to save the world – then you could be reborn as some god or something like that, but it’s still samsaric. Or if one is just doing it for no particular reason at all, just because the teacher said to do it, then, likewise, it might – depending on how successful we are – mess up the energies (so that would have not a very nice effect) or harmonize the energies, but still within samsaric rebirth.

It’s like if you do the practices of visualizing yourself as a Buddha-figure without bodhichitta and voidness. The texts say very clearly that’s a perfect cause for being reborn as a ghost in the shape of the Buddha-figure. You find that phenomenon very prominently in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, where you did have Mahayana and tantra Buddhism, and undoubtedly people did visualize themselves as these Buddha-figures, and undoubtedly without the proper context of bodhichitta and voidness. You have this remarkable phenomenon there of everybody – not everybody, but a lot of people – big groups coming together and all the people channeling a spirit, like Laughing Buddha (which is a form of Maitreya Buddha actually) and other various Buddha-figures that come through them and then help people. These are the local psychologists and psychiatrists actually, these people who go into this trance and channel these various spirits. I think the only explanation for that is that these [figures that they channel] are previous practitioners who then were reborn as a ghost, as some type of spirit, but with a strong wish to help others. And so there they are as samsaric spirits or ghosts being channeled and trying to help others, but it’s still samsaric. Very interesting phenomenon there.

The Traditional Presentation of the Origin of the Kalachakra Texts

Okay. Now Kalachakra. Kalachakra means cycles of time. It is the latest tantra to actually emerge, in terms of its literature. It appeared in the end of the tenth century. It came to India originally, and then spread to Tibet, and from Tibet to Mongolia. According to tradition, Buddha taught this in India, South India, and the main person who came to receive the teachings was the king of Shambhala. Shambhala is a kingdom which – no need to go into tremendous detail, you can read a lot about it on my website – but it’s a kingdom in the north that probably has some sort of geographical foundation for it, but it’s not actually a place that we could go to now with a physical journey. But, anyway, he brought the teachings back to Shambhala, King Suchandra, and they were passed down through a line of, first, seven kings, and then a line of Kulika rulers (those who hold the caste, literally). And later on in India, two different masters try to go to Shambhala – they were not successful in getting there – called Kalachakra-pada the Elder, and Chilupa. And each of them had a vision (one, of Manjushri; another, of one of these Kulika kings) and they were revealed Kalachakra Tantra material that had been preserved in Shambhala but then abridged – tantra and commentaries and stuff, written in Shambhala – and they made these teachings available. So that’s the traditional presentation of it; what we make of that is not so easy to understand.

Cycles of Time and Karma

But Kalachakra speaks of three different cycles of time. Time can be understood in terms of clear-light mind, which is beyond time because it is something that lasts forever. And chakra (cycles) means manifestations of appearances. And so we have these cyclical manifestations of appearances of the clear-light mind – Kalachakra. And there are three levels of that – external, internal, and alternative.

External cycles deal with the cycles of the universe. So we have, in the presentation of these, the motion of the planets – the sun and the moon – astrology, cycles of the universe appearing and then dissolving, cycles of history within the universe, these type of things. And we were speaking before about the winds of karma. They would say that the winds of karma also affect the motion of the planets as well – the motions of astrology – and the motions of history (in terms of collective karma).

Then we have the internal cycles. The internal cycles are the cycles within the body of the breaths, the movement of the energies within the bodies – within various types of body – and so on. These are also under the influence of the winds of karma. And there’s a parallel between the external and the internal cycles – the structure is made the same in Kalachakra – the proportions of Mount Meru and the universe are the same as the proportions of the human body, and so on. So it’s configured in a way in which you describe the external and internal situations as being parallel, the same, both under the influence of the winds of karma.

The alternative cycles are the actual tantra practice, which are used to overcome being under the influence of the external and internal cycles. So it’s the same Buddhist structure that we always have – you want to overcome being under the influence of karma and the disturbing emotions – but here it’s presented in a very, very detailed manner which then is the framework in which you have the whole presentation within the Buddhist world of mathematics, and astronomy, and astrology, and medicine, and all these various things. So the literature is a huge encyclopedia – in these first two aspects of the outer and inner – of the major sciences, the external and internal sciences studied in the Buddhist world. Even grammar is in there, and the rules of how you classify the sounds of the Sanskrit language, and so on; that’s in there as well.

Generation Stage in Kalachakra

When we want to overcome being under the influence of karma and disturbing emotions, then we have the same type of tantra path that we’ve been discussing – the anuttarayoga tantra path – with first an empowerment, and special vows that include the other vows that we have in normal tantra but with some special features in it as well – things like not making animal sacrifice, and this type of additional vows. And also a generation stage in which we imagine ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure. This is one of the most complicated practices. The mandala is, again – the palace is, again, with the same proportions as Mount Meru and the universe, the same proportions as the human body. So you have, again, the parallel proportions in the building. You have the parallel proportions in the Buddha-figure, etc., so that one can, working with parallels, overcome being under the influence of the samsaric side and become within the nirvanic side of it.

The complete stage practice, according to the Gelug tradition it is mother tantra because it doesn’t have the illusory body – it has a different type of body – and it certainly has tummo and emphasizes working with the different levels of bliss. According to the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, it’s classified separately, by itself, as a nondual tantra.

The mandala consists of 722 figures in it, and so this is really unbelievably complicated and difficult to visualize, obviously. They all look different, and are holding different things, and – like that. So it’s not simple by any means. We have in it various figures representing the 360 days of the lunar year (12 lunar months with 30 days each). You have figures for each of the planets, figures for each of the 28 constellations; you have figures for each of the signs of the zodiac. These figures represent, on one level, these external things; and then, on an internal level, [one set of ten represents] the ten planets. These figures not only represent ten planets but ten energy-winds; just as the planets move through the heavens, the winds move through the body. There are 360 bones in the body, according to the anatomy, just as there are the 360 days of the year. So all these parallels that are there, all these things that the different figures in the mandala represent.

Complete Stage in Kalachakra

The complete stage, as I said, is slightly different. We do many practices in it that are similar to the mother tantra practices – with tummo, for example. But when we actually generate what will become the direct cause, the main cause for a body of a Buddha, rather than making it out of the winds, the subtlest energy-wind, it is like a reflection of the clear-light mind – is the way that it’s explained – like an image in a magic mirror that appears. Because of that, the way in which you meditate in order to be able to generate that type of devoid form – it’s devoid of atoms, that’s why it’s called void or devoid form – is slightly different from the way that you work with the causes for achieving a body in the other tantras. Also, the blissful awareness that you generate is called unchanging blissful awareness. This is because you have a very complicated practice that consists of: During the course of a day, there are 21,600 breaths that you take, and that corresponds to 21,600 – I forget what it is. I think it’s hours in a year if you have 60 hours in a day, 360 days. I think that is the figure; I don’t remember it precisely. And you want to stack up within the central channel another set of drops, 21,600 drops, and, on the basis of it, experience an unchanging blissful awareness – because those drops stay in the central channel even when you’re not in meditation. And in that process, you get rid of the 21,600 aspects of this winds of karma. So it’s a rather complex, sophisticated system. No need to go into all the details, but you get a general idea of what it’s talking about, that type of practice. Certainly we’re not about to do that at this stage of our engagement in that practice.

The History of the Kalachakra Texts

The Kalachakra texts themselves – it’s quite interesting; there’s a lot of speculation where the texts might have originated. My own theory is that they originated in Afghanistan in the tenth century. One of the famous aspects of the historical portion of the text is it speaks about future invasions, and periodically you have invasions of forces that will destroy (or try to destroy) all opportunities to practice the Dharma. When we look at the characteristics, the description of the particular invaders that the king of Shambhala is warning the people of Shambhala about in the text itself, it’s quite clear that they are speaking about the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam as practiced in the kingdom of Multan at the end of the tenth century in Pakistan, central Pakistan. Because they have a list of the prophets of the invaders and it corresponds, for the most part, to the Ismaili’s and doesn’t correspond to anybody else’s list of prophets.

And it’s quite clear, at that time… You had the Abbasid caliphate. This is the Arab empire that was centered in Baghdad as its capital. They ruled all the way from the Palestine area all the way over to, in many times, including Afghanistan. But at the particular time, this region of Afghanistan was under the Hindu Shahi rule; that’s a Hindu kingdom. They had Buddhists there. There were Buddhist monasteries in, particularly, the Kabul valley for so many centuries. Hindu population. A lot of familiarity with Islam. The Abbasid empire was Sunni, a form of Islam. But at that time, in the middle of the tenth century, you had an empire set up in Egypt, the Fatimid empire, which was Ismaili; and they had an ally in Pakistan (this kingdom of Multan) that also followed Ismaili, a Shia form of Islam. And the particular form of Ismaili is not the same as we have today, but if you look at the writings of the main philosopher whose works were accepted – particularly in Multan – al-Sijistani, again it corresponds quite closely to the description that you have in the Kalachakra texts. And so, at this period, everybody was expecting the end of the world, an apocalypse; it was predicted in Islam as well. And the Fatimids claimed that they had the Messiah and they were sandwiching on both sides, the Abbasid area, and threatening to invade, to take over the rule of Islam.

So this seems to me to make perfect sense, that at that time, the historical portion of the text – which is only one small portion of the text but gets an awful lot of attention – that historical point was addressing the people in this area in Afghanistan at the time when there was a threat of invasion from the people in Multan, from the forces of Multan, and saying that to a mixed, primarily Hindu population – but also various other aspects of Zoroastrianism was there, and Islam was there, and the Buddhists were there – that everybody has to join together in order to unite to face the threat of an invasion. And then there’s descriptions of a war and so on.

Then in the commentaries it’s quite clear. It says that – again, because of all these parallels – that this is parallel to the periodic invasion of our mind by the disturbing emotions and so on, and the forces of the army of Shambhala that fight against it are equivalent to the forces of love and compassion and all these things, and it’s clearly an internal battle. Kaydrubjey, in his commentary, says very clearly that it doesn’t mean that we all go out and fight a war. That has been misrepresented, often by Western people saying that this is a clearly anti-Islamic thing and predicting the terrorism of the future, and so on. This is rubbish. It’s not like that. It’s speaking about a specific period of time and a specific threat that was there, and rallying the people to follow the ethics of your traditional religion and get everything together and primarily fight the inner battle within oneself. So it has the same type of meaning as jihad in Islam, which is an inner struggle against the disturbing forces within; that’s the actual meaning.

So we have this historical reference, this aspect. And in fact when the Ghaznavids – which was the next kingdom, a Turkic kingdom that ruled in Afghanistan in this area, that overthrew the Hindu Shahis… So they were allied to the Abbasids and they attacked India. Well, what was their attack, what was their purpose? Their purpose, the main thing that they attacked – and I think the year was 1004 – was Multan, this threatening kingdom under the Fatimids, this Ismaili kingdom. That’s what they destroyed. That was the whole purpose of the invasion into the Indian subcontinent. And then, after they conquered that kingdom and they saw how much gold they were able to get from the various temples and rulers and whatever, then they thought: Hey, this is pretty good; let’s go on further into India and invade and get some more loot that they could get. And so the whole purpose of the invasion into India, and the destruction of the monasteries and so on that happened after that, was not a religious war, as some people would like to represent it. You can rally your troops to fight by giving all sorts of religious things, but the main aim of it was a military campaign of a threat to the Abbasid empire, and then greed for money, gold, and power, which is what has driven almost every war that has happened. This I feel is very important to understand and to remove from our understanding of Kalachakra – that this is an anti-Islamic text. It’s not. Okay.

Let’s think a little bit about this and then we’ll go on.

Shambhala

Shambhala gets a great deal of publicity because of Kalachakra and, again, I think that one has to have a more realistic view of it. Shambhala of course is not a pure land; it’s an actual place where the Kalachakra teachings were preserved, but then is it really a place? Because there are, of course, guides that were written to reach Shambhala, specifically by the Third Panchen Lama, but that explains quite clearly that it’s a geographical journey only for so far and then, after that, you have to do millions of mantras and practices, and that’s the way to actually get to Shambhala.

There’s an explanation of geography in the Kalachakra Tantra and we can say… Like it says that in the center there’s Bodhgaya, and in the East there’s the holy mountain of Manjushri, and so on, Shambhala is in the North, Oddiyana in the West, and the holy mountain of Chenrezig, Potala, in the South. And you can say, well, these things are actually speaking about some sort of special land that are the realms protected by these various figures, and there could be places on earth that represent it. Because there is the Five-Peaked Mountain of Manjushri [Mount Wutai] in China – not too far from Beijing, to the southwest of Beijing – but that doesn’t mean that Shambhala’s actually a physically place that you could find. Nevertheless – I mean, they’re only places that represent it; that’s why one has to be a little bit careful there. And although the historical references in Kalachakra, according to my understanding, are referring to that situation in Afghanistan, nevertheless the astronomical information that is there – about the length of the day, and how you calculate the length of the day and middle of the shortest day of the year in Shambhala, and other astrological and astronomical points there – would indicate that that aspect was identifying Shambhala with Mount Kailash.

So there’s many things that are mixed together here in this text. Nevertheless, people have been very inspired and moved by the idea of Shambhala. In the West we have Shangrila (it’s derivative from Shambhala) as some sort of special hidden paradise in the mountains. People (like Madam Blavatsky and Roerich) were all inspired to try to find Shambhala, etc. And we have a lot of nonsense mythology which has evolved around Shambhala – including that it’s a place beneath the earth where the flying saucers originate and they come out of volcanoes, which is absolutely absurd.

So that’s about Shambhala.

Kalachakra in Tibet

The Kalachakra literature was translated quite early into Tibet. There are many lineages of it. It was translated in the eleventh century. It also translated to Mongolia. It became very popular among the Mongol regions in Siberia as well. Everybody wanted to identify themselves as the Northern Land of Shambhala; that’s one of the reasons why it was so popular.

Because it came into Tibet in the eleventh century – that was after the Nyingma Transmission (the Old Transmission) of Dharma, so we don’t have a Nyingma line of it, a lineage of Nyingma. Of the text themselves, we have primarily Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug lineages of the initiation practice and so on. And within Kagyu, I’m familiar with commentaries that were written by masters from the Karma Kagyu tradition and the Drugpa Kagyu tradition. I don’t know if there are any commentaries written by masters from the Drigung Kagyu tradition; I’m not familiar with that. We have commentaries within the various divisions of Sakya, and certainly within the Gelug tradition. Later on, there are Nyingma commentaries by Mipham, in the nineteenth century, that are commentaries to the abridged tantra, and so there’s a dzogchen way of practicing Kalachakra although there’s not a dzogchen lineage coming from India of it.

There are different forms of Kalachakra – one can practice more simplified forms of Kalachakra (there’s even just a single deity with one face and two arms), there’s just a simple couple, there is 9 figures, there’s 36 figures, and there’s a 722-figure aspect. So there are many, many different sadhanas, many different practices. As I was saying, any of these Buddha-figures can be used as a frame for different lineages and different styles of practice within it. But the literature itself speaks about, as I say, these external, internal, and alternative cycles of time or manifestations of appearances of the clear-light mind, and has discussion of the winds of karma, and the type of practices of stacking the drops, and having this unchanging blissful awareness, and the devoid form (devoid of atoms).

That’s a little bit of an introduction to Kalachakra. It’s obviously a vast topic. And again if you’re interested in it, I would recommend, again, looking at my website: www.berzinarchives.com. I have a very large section on Kalachakra there, as well as a large section on tantra. You can find a lot of information there if you’re interested.

So, with our last fifteen minutes, perhaps you have some questions, either about Kalachakra or tantra in general. Or there’s an opportunity if you have questions about Dharma in general, please ask.

Question about Dual and Nondual Mind

Question: We’ve touched on questions about conceptual mind and nonconceptual mind and the unity of emptiness and the appearance of holograms. People speculate about nondual mind and dual mind. How are all those things related to each other?

Alex: Okay. Very good, very good. The question concerns – We’ve been discussing the difference between conceptual and nonconceptual mind (cognition), we’ve been discussing the inseparability of voidness and appearance, and how does this tie in with the discussion that we find of dual and nondual mind?

Dual mind: we’re talking about dual appearance-making. So it is the mind making an appearance of duality. How do we understand duality? There are many, many different ways of understanding duality here, depending on the author, depending on the school of Buddhism. We can say, from a Madhyamaka point of view, that the mind makes an appearance and dual appearance is that it’s making an appearance of true existence – which is false, so an impossible appearance – and that does not accord with how things actually exist. And so the duality it’s referring to is that here’s an appearance that is different from the actual pure appearance of things. So there’s that aspect of duality. A nondual mind would make an appearance of things the way they actually do exist, dependently arising, and so on, or beyond words, beyond concepts – however we want to describe it, depending on the author and the school. So that would be nondual. There’s nothing dual about the appearance, in the sense that it’s not something different from the way that things actually do exist. That’s one explanation.

Another explanation derives from the Chittamatra school, the mind-only school (but it can also be understood in a Madhyamaka sense), which is the dual appearance would be the appearance that the hologram (the appearance) of an object of cognition and the mind that makes that appearance, or that perceives that appearance, exist differently from each other. Now we can say… I mean, I don’t want to go into deep philosophical discussion of Chittamatra and the Madhyamaka modification of it. But if we speak in terms of the clear-light mind – not the Chittamatra, because Chittamatra has things being truly existent – but if we speak in terms of the clear-light mind, a mental hologram (the appearance) and the mind that perceives the appearance are both coming from the clear-light mind. So the clear-light level of the mind makes an appearance, and that appearance will be with a – could be a pure appearance, but an impure appearance as well. What it will give rise to is like a grosser level of consciousness which is making an appearance.

When we talk about mind, mental activity – it’s a very complex topic – but the definition of mental activity is with three words: clarity, awareness, and merely (only that). And it’s all referring to one activity, described from different points of view. Clarity – what’s translated as clarity – is referring to: What does it mean? What is the mental activity? That clarity is referring to making a mental hologram, making an appearance. And the awareness is knowing the object. Then the point is that making an appearance (making a hologram) and knowing an object in terms of a hologram, that’s the same thing. It’s not that, for instance, first the mind creates a thought and then you think it. To create a thought, to have a thought – the arising of a thought and thinking of a thought is the same thing, just described from two different points of view. So that’s the same thing, in terms of the mind making, let’s say, a visual hologram from all these pixels of light and firing of neurons and stuff in the brain. That making of a hologram is what seeing is; it’s not that first the hologram arises and then you see it. And the word merely means that this is happening without a separate, solid “me,” separate from the whole process, watching it or making it happen; it just happens, void of any solid “me” or void of any solid existence itself.

And so the dual appearance would be that the hologram and the mind that perceives the hologram – that they’re different, and they’re coming from different things, and they’re different entities, solid lines around them. Nondual is to see that it’s all one process; it’s all talking about the same thing. Even though it’s talking about the same thing, that doesn’t mean that physical objects and awareness or mind are the same thing. They’re not identical. Nondual doesn’t mean identical. A form of physical phenomenon and a way of knowing something (which is mind), they’re different. But nondual is referring to the whole process of mental activity itself.

Is that at all clear? That’s not easy. Not easy. But when we say nondual, it doesn’t mean that everything is one and it’s just a big, undifferentiated soup. That’s more the Hindu way of thinking – that we’re all one in Brahma and it’s all this undifferentiated oneness. That’s not Buddhism. That’s not Buddhism. When we perceive things, the appearance (the hologram) and the knowing (the perception itself) are not two totally unrelated things; they’re talking about the same activity from two sides. But that doesn’t mean that the appearance is the mind, totally identical – they’re not totally identical – but it’s referring to the same thing from two different points of view. Okay?

Any other questions?

Question about Starting Tantra Practice

Question: What are the ways in which tantras are usually applied?

Alex: Which ones are usually applied, or what?

Participant: Any of the levels of tantra.

Alex: How is it applied in daily life?

Participant: On what level is it usually applied? I know you have to do certain training. How does it work, actually

Alex: I’m not quite sure I understand your question. Can you be a little more specific? How it works? How tantra works? That’s what we have been discussing the last two days. How it applies? Do you mean how do we apply it in daily life?

Participant: When is it possible to start to practice higher tantra?

Alex: Is that your question? When is it possible to practice it?

Participant: Yes, from what point.

Alex: What point is it actually possible to practice tantra? As I said, if we’re given these initiations prematurely, in the sense that we’re not really ready, and we’re asked to do the ritual, then fine, you can do the ritual. But actual engagement in the practice – which means to fill in what the ritual is just giving a structure for – for that, we need to certainly have very strong refuge, and at least some basic understanding and feeling for renunciation, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness. Bodhichitta, of course, implies love and compassion as well.

So some level of renunciation, that I want to give up samsara, I want to give up my ordinary way of viewing things, my self-image – and all these sort of things – my image of the universe around me. Willingness to give that up. Some focus on “I want to achieve enlightenment because I’m really concerned about others” – and helping them to overcome their suffering and bringing them happiness, and I take some responsibility for being able to help them to achieve this. And I understand that things don’t exist in the impossible way in which my mind makes things appear, which is as if everything is solid and encapsulated in plastic, or with a big line around it, existing all by itself.

So with that, and an empowerment, and seriously keeping the vows – of how to practice, what to avoid, these type of things – and some relation with the spiritual teacher, so that we feel some inspiration for the practice, then we can actually engage in the practice in a meaningful way. And of course the better our concentration, the more meaningful it will be: Even if we have all of these, if we sit there and our mind wanders all over the place, it’s not so effective.

So these are the points. And also I would suggest that, at that point where we really have the background to be able to practice in a serious way, that it’s very good, if possible, to take the initiations again, so that we really make a very conscious decision – that now I’m not just going to recite rituals, but I’m going to actually do the practice that is described in the rituals.

So there are levels, but there’s no way to go beyond the generation stage unless you have absolutely perfect concentration. The sign that we have finished that first stage is that we are able to… There’s two steps of it. The first one is that you’re able to maintain the visualization of the whole mandala with all the figures, all the details, perfectly for four hours. Then there’s what is called the subtle generation stage, which is that you’re able to maintain that perfect visualization of the whole mandala and everything not only on the external level, but also inside a tiny little drop that you visualize, depending on the tantra, at the tip of your nose, or by the third eye, or various other places.

It’s only when you have that level of concentration and visualization that you’re ready to go on to the complete stage. Why? Because when you are going to be working with the subtle energies and channels and so on, not only do you have to be able to visualize them perfectly with perfect concentration – if your concentration wanders then, if you’ve been moving around the energies, energy is going to go wild and you’re going to get into trouble. So you have to be able to really hold your concentration firmly, and the concentration has to be microscopic, like a laser beam, so that you can actually focus on these tiny little channels and the tiny little things that are there.

So all of this, these stages of practice, it sounds like “Oh my goodness! How could I ever achieve that?” Tantra is an efficient and speedy path but nobody ever said that it was an easy path. It’s a very difficult path. But slowly, slowly we aim in that direction, with some confidence that this is really a fantastic path and can really work, and we understand a bit how it works. And then you just slowly go in that direction. And don’t expect big results. Every meditation text says “Meditate without any hopes or expectations and without any disappointments.” You just do it. Just do the practice. And we’re still in samsara – it’s going to go up and down; no surprise. But put in the energy, put in the effort, with the proper motivation, and try. And it can be very, very effective.

Practical Uses of Tantra in Everyday Life

In our ordinary lives, if we’ve been working with the more helpful images of these Buddha-figures then, if we’re in a situation in which “Uhhh. I have no energy,” or whatever, then you dissolve this. You think “This is ridiculous. It’s bullshit. It’s impossible that I solidly exist like that,” and then generate oneself as Tara – “Yes, I do have energy, energy to be able to help others. Vital energy.” We’re feeling very dull and “Duhhh. I can’t understand anything.” Dissolve that with the understanding of voidness – “I don’t inherently exist like that” – and then generate the feeling of Manjushri, that “I have clarity of mind. I am capable of understanding.” Or when our hearts don’t feel anything and “Uhhh. I can’t be bothered to help anybody.” No. Chenrezig – you have the compassion, you have this strong warmth to be able to help others. So each of these figures helps us in a very conventional way, actually, in our tantra practice and when we try to apply tantra practice in our ordinary lives.

Mantras are very, very helpful, especially when our minds are just so unfocused and wandering all over the place, and particularly when – this is something that is very much the case with me – if I hear a song, or even some stupid advertisement on the television, it continues to go through my head endlessly, and it’s very, very difficult to stop singing it in my head. For that, mantra is perfect, because it’s a type of mental judo. Rather than trying to block that mental verbal energy, you transform it instead into saying a mantra. It’s very, very helpful.

So these sorts of things are a more usual application of these practices.

We have to be able to visualize a mandala perfectly in a tiny little dot at the tip of our nose for four hours. Come on, that’s going to be very difficult. But that doesn’t mean that tantra practice is not practical. It is very practical. But don’t leave it on the level of just chanting a ritual and playing with a drum and a bell; that’s fantasy land, if all it is is playing like that. It’s a structure on which you put various things, you fill in various things. And practice is not just when you’re sitting on a nice meditation seat and doing a ritual – it’s all day long. Okay? And by visualizing or imagining oneself as a Buddha-figure, it’s very helpful for bodhichitta because it maintains the focus of what we’re trying to achieve – I’m trying to achieve enlightenment so I can benefit everybody as fully as is possible – so the more we can keep this Buddha-image in mind, of ourselves, the more it helps us to keep bodhichitta in mind. That’s very important. Plus, as we’ve said, from all the advantages of a Buddha-figure: because at our stage it’s just in our imagination, it’s easier to keep in mind voidness. So there are these many benefits.

Well, I have to go, so let’s end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding has come from this, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you very much.