Practicing Tantra Effectively
Session One: Introduction to Tantra
This evening I’d like to start a weekend seminar on the topic of how to practice tantra effectively. And this is important for those of us who are involved already with tantra practice because we might not be engaging in those practices in the most effective manner; and in order to make our practice more effective, we need to know what to do. So the first thing that we need to know is what actually is tantra. What is the aim of tantra and how does it achieve that goal?
Well, the aim of tantra is to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha, like all other Mahayana practices, and we’re talking here about our own individual state of enlightenment. And, as in all Mahayana practices, we want to achieve that in order to be able to be of best help to everyone. Now, as for how we are going to attain that goal, we are certainly going to use all the methods that are presented in the sutra teachings; but, in addition, we’re going to add some more methods to that. So it’s very important never to think that sutra practice and tantra practice are two totally separate things and they don’t share anything in common. Everything that is in sutra practice is in tantra practice, although not everything in tantra practice will we find in sutra.
Now what helps us to understand what is actually going on in tantra is the actual word “tantra.” And tantra has two meanings, the word in Sanskrit. On one level, it means an everlasting stream of continuity; so something that stretches on and on and on, forever. And an extension of that meaning of stretching on and on and on is the second meaning, which are the strings of a loom on which you weave something.
Now when we talk about an everlasting continuum, we have three levels of that. We have the basis level, path level, and the resultant level. Basis level is referring to all the Buddha-nature factors; in other words, all the factors that will enable us to become a Buddha. And these are qualities or aspects of our mental continuum; in other words, what goes on from moment to moment to moment, lifetime to lifetime, no beginning and no end. So that’s the basis, what we all have – all beings, not just humans, because in one lifetime we may be reborn as a human, and in another lifetime we may be reborn as an insect or any other type of life form with a mind. And having a mind implies here any form of life that acts on the basis of intention – sort of with karmic impulses to do something with an intention. So we’re not talking about plants or rocks or anything like that. But, in any case, that’s the basis: all these Buddha-nature factors. And we’ll look more closely at that, but I want to present first the structure.
Then the path is referring to a type of practice that we can do which the elements or aspects of it also have no beginning and no end; so as a continuum. Because, although on the basis we have all these qualities and aspects that will enable us to become a Buddha, they are not functioning at the Buddha level because there are various obscurations or obstacles that cloud them so that we’re not aware of them and limit their ability to function. So we need a practice that is going to enable us to get rid of these obscurations, get rid of these blocks, and strengthen these Buddha-nature aspects so that they’ll function fully. And what would be most efficient is to have some sort of practice that is going to help us to purify away these difficulties, but a method that has some sort of continuity – that’s always available. And this is our practice with tantra. And, again, we’ll look at that more closely, what actually that method is referring to.
And on the resultant level, what we want to attain or achieve is the enlightened state of a Buddha in which all these qualities and aspects are functioning fully, and we want that to be a continuum that goes on forever.
So tantra is basically a very efficient method for purifying away the obstacles that prevent our Buddha-nature aspects from functioning fully as a Buddha. That’s what tantra is all about on a very, very fundamental level.
Okay. Now if we look at what are these Buddha-nature factors, there are a number of different ways of presenting that. And one important presentation of it is that we have two networks, sometimes called the two collections. We have a network of positive force, that’s sometimes called the collection of merit; and we have a network of deep awareness, sometimes called the collection of wisdom or insight, something like that. So what is that talking about? How can we have these with no beginning?
As I said, having a mental continuum, being what’s called a sentient being, which actually means a limited being, a being with a mind that is limited – and we don’t mean mentally deficient or something like that; it just is not able to function fully. Now that mind – mental activity, moment to moment to moment – is able to know things. We have the ability to know things. But that ability to know things is limited; it’s clouded over with what is called unawareness, or in some languages it’s called ignorance. And basically this means either we are just unaware – we don’t know cause and effect: you know, what’s the effect of our behavior; and we don’t know how we exist, others exist, everybody exists; we just don’t know that; it’s not obvious. Or we have an incorrect understanding of these.
We think, for instance, that if I yell at somebody, that somehow they’re going to do what I want them to do, and they’re going to like me – which obviously doesn’t always work – and that it’s going to make me happier. We don’t understand that treating somebody unkindly is going to just bring more unhappiness and problems for ourselves. Or we think if I exploit them somehow, I will be happier. So either we don’t know the result or we know it in an incorrect way. Or that I can pollute the environment and it’s not going to have any effect. This is completely incorrect, isn’t it?
And the same thing in terms of reality: we think that we can do something and it exists isolated all by itself. We don’t know – or we know incorrectly – that everything is interconnected. Nothing exists in an isolated way. And we have all sorts of disturbing emotions based on this unawareness. So we have greed and attachment and lust: if I can just get something, it will make me happy. And anger and aversion: if I can get things away, it’ll make me happy; it’ll make me secure. And naivety: if I can just shut things out and don’t have to deal with things, as if they don’t exist, that will make me happy. And, on the basis of these disturbing emotions, then we act in either destructive ways or it could be even constructive ways, but behind the constructive ways there’s naivety: I’ll be nice to you so that you’ll love me; that I’ll feel needed; or something like that.
And acting in these ways, this is known as karmic behavior. It’s acting in terms of karma, we call it, and it brings about various aftermath of the karma, tendencies – builds up tendencies – potentials, habits. So from acting constructively, it builds up what I would call positive force or positive potential; that’s usually translated as “merit.” And from acting negatively, destructively, it builds up negative force, negative potential; that’s sometimes translated, unfortunately, as “sin.” But merit, sin – these don’t really give the proper connotation. We’re just talking about positive force and negative force; positive potential, negative potential.
So it’s positive force or positive potential to be able to experience our ordinary type of happiness and to be able to experience the so-called better or more fortunate types of rebirth – human, etc. And the negative potential, the negative force, is a potential or force to experience unhappiness, pain, etc., and rebirth in one of these worse realms – like an animal or a ghost. Now, obviously, in each rebirth state we could have happiness and unhappiness; but we’re talking about what results in happiness and also results in the better rebirth, and what results in unhappiness and worse rebirths. So happiness in any rebirth, unhappiness in any rebirth.
And we all experience that sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re unhappy. Different levels of that; it doesn’t have to be intense. But we all experience that. So that indicates that we all have some sort of positive force and some sort of negative force; some positive potential, negative potential. And what happens is that we have disturbing emotions as well – we already mentioned that – and these disturbing emotions are what is going to activate these potentials to bring about a next rebirth, depending on what cluster of potentials will be a better rebirth with better circumstances or not such good circumstances, or a worse rebirth with better circumstances or not such good circumstances.
So what is relevant here, in terms of our Buddha-nature factors, is positive force, the positive network. And since we have beginningless rebirth from beginningless time, all these positive forces network together. That’s why we call it a network; it’s not just a collection of things that are unconnected with each other. And this network of positive force is a Buddha-nature factor because it can, if it’s in a more pure state, not mixed with confusion, then it could give rise to the type of happiness that a Buddha has – and contribute to that, I should say. In other words, we can work with it in order to achieve the happiness of a Buddha. And this positive force, as I said, when it’s activated by disturbing emotions, can give rise to our ordinary appearance in one of these better states of rebirth, say as a human. But if it’s purified – we get rid of the disturbing emotions and so on – it could be the cause that’s going to give rise to the pure body of a Buddha. So this network of positive force is one of our Buddha-nature factors.
And we also have this second network, of deep awareness. And there are many levels of deep awareness that can be included here, but on the most basic level it’s referring to the various ways in which the mind works – mental activity works – in any rebirth state. Without getting into technical detail, how does our mental activity work? It’s able to take in information. It’s able to put some information together in equal categories so it can understand things, like being able to see two things equally as being food, for example; even a worm can do that. The ability to know things individually; I can know this bottle of water individually, within everything that I see, for example. I mean, anybody can do that. And when I see these two bottles of water in front of me, I can know – I can point to one of them, so I can know the one individually. So we’re able to do that. Mind works like that. And another thing that mental activity can do is to know how to engage with something; how to use something. So I know that to drink this water, I need to lift the bottle, take the cap off, and put it to my mouth. So worms know how to eat. I mean, we know how to do things. And we know what things are. We don’t have to have a name for it; a worm doesn’t have a name for water, but it knows that that’s water – what we would call water with the word “water.”
So this is – on a basis level, we would call this basis type of deep awareness. It’s very deep; it’s very fundamental. “Deep” here means very fundamental. In some cases it can mean profound; in this case it means really fundamental. Deep in that sense. And it’s clear that we all have that because these are the most innate basic features of mental activity; how the mind works. But these are limited now. They’re not working at their fullest level of efficiency. It’s very simple: we’re able to take in information, but how many of us really could remember what everybody in this room is wearing, and all of that. So, although the information comes in, we’re quite limited in dealing with it. But this network of deep awareness – because we have many moments of them, so they network together – when the limitations are removed, it can function fully as the mind of a Buddha.
So we have these basic Buddha-nature factures, which ordinarily are just going to be involved with bringing us about yet another rebirth, another rebirth with limitations; sometimes ordinary happiness which doesn’t last, sometimes unhappiness – going up and down – and it will bring us mental activity, but limited mental activity. So that’s what’s going on, on a basis level. But, if it’s purified, these can give rise to – these two networks can give rise to – instead of a rebirth as some sort of a limited being with a limited mind and a limited body, it can give rise to the body and mind of a Buddha.
And we have many other Buddha-nature aspects, according to… There are many other systems for this, as I said; for explaining this. So we all have body; the ability to communicate, what’s called speech; we all have mind, the ability to know things. And we all have some basic good qualities, like warmth, the ability to take care – even if we’re just taking care of ourselves – but the ability to take care of someone; to avoid suffering, even if it’s our own suffering. You see, this becomes a basis for love and compassion when it is purified – one for infinite love and infinite compassion, I’m talking about: not just taking care about myself to be happy, not just taking care of myself to avoid unhappiness, but to take care of everybody to be happy and everybody to be free of suffering. So that’s infinite love and compassion. But we have this as a basic ability. And, in addition to body, speech, mind, good qualities, we also have activity. We do things. So, as a Buddha, we could do everything to benefit others, not just the limited amount of things that we can do now.
So these are basis level. There’s a continuum; we always have these, all these different aspects. And, in addition, our mental continuum doesn’t exist in any sort of impossible way. An impossible way would be that it could never improve, we can never get rid of the limitations, things like that. That’s impossible. So that’s a very important aspect here, that all these qualities then can be affected. They are affected by causes and conditions. They can grow. The limitations, etc., can be affected by causes and conditions; they can be diminished; they can be eliminated. So these things don’t exist in this impossible way of being isolated, frozen, stuck.
Now on the resultant level, as a Buddha, we would have all these various aspects, all these various qualities, functioning at their fullest level with no limitations, and all of them would be functioning and working and present simultaneously, at the same time. So now we want to have a method that is going to enable us to work with this basis level to reach that resultant level, so that that basis level, rather than continuing forever in a limited way, will continue forever in the fully effective, fully efficient way as a Buddha, forever: a continuum, tantra. So what we want as a method, then, to enable us to reach that resultant stage is a type of practice which uses all these basis level factors, uses them simultaneously as a way that is going to help us to achieve that resultant goal. And we want to use a method – if we want to be really efficient – one which is similar to or parallel to what we have on the basis level and what we have on the resultant level.
So here we have the pathway practices of tantra. In other words, the tantra practices that we use as a path for reaching this resultant state, the enlightened state of a Buddha. And we want to use the type of practice that has, as its foundation, something that has no beginning and has no end – tantra, the word “tantra” – and this refers to these various Buddha-figures that we work with: so-called “tantric deities.” When the term “deity” is used for them, we certainly don’t mean that in the sense of a creator God or in the sense of the Hindu or Ancient Greek gods. We don’t mean that at all. But rather, the term is a “special type of god,” or a god that is above these ordinary types of gods. So in English, we usually use the word “deity” because “god” implies a creator. So we use the word “deity.” But I prefer to shy away from that terminology because it can be quite confusing for many people.
Actually this word “special type of deity” is the Tibetan term. The Sanskrit term that that’s translating actually means a deity which is used for reaching a wished-for goal. It’s “wished-for” is the term: ishtadevata in Sanskrit. So it’s a deity form that we use for reaching our wished-for goal, which is not to go to heaven or to be rich, but to attain enlightenment. And I think the Tibetans realize that to translate that literally into Tibetan would be quite misunderstood, and so they translated that as a “special type of deity.” And perhaps “deity” is used here because the type of body that we’re talking about is a very subtle type of body, not our usual type of material body. But there’s another term that’s used for it in Tibetan, yidam. And yi means mind; and dam is short for dam-tshig, which means a close bond. So this is a figure that one makes a close connection with – a close bond with – for our minds, in order to reach our desired goal, which is enlightenment.
So what do we have here? We’re working with figures that are coming from a traditional Indian background, and so they have a certain variety of forms which are many different colors. They have, very often, many faces, many arms, many legs. And although they can change from moment to moment… They change from moment to moment; what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that they are growing older, or getting sick, or grow from a baby to an adult. But, imagining ourselves in this form, we can do various things; and at times we can be aware of it, times we’re not aware of it. So, in that sense, moment to moment it is changing. It’s not static. It’s in this category of phenomena, the so-called static type of nonstatic phenomena. It’s nonstatic – you know, moment to moment to moment – but it’s eternal: has no beginning and no end. In other words, it’s in a set form, and didn’t have to grow up, didn’t have to go to school, doesn’t get old, etc. So it is always available in the same form forever, for us to be able to use as an object in our meditation. In that sense, it forms a tantra, an everlasting stream. And although some of them can be, in a sense, modeled after someone who was a limited being – like Tara was a woman. I mean, in a particular lifetime she was a woman, and she vowed to reach enlightenment in a female form in order to encourage women to achieve enlightenment. So there was a being known as Tara – but the actual Buddha-form, Buddha-figure Tara is just, in a sense, modeled on that.
So what we want to do in our practice is, instead of this network of positive force giving rise to an ordinary type of body in a rebirth, to have it give rise to ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure – Tara or Manjushri. And we want our network of deep awareness, rather than giving rise to a limited type of mind with limited ability to understand, we want it give rise to the type of mind of a Buddha with all the qualities of mind and what we would differentiate in the West as mind and heart: abilities to understand, abilities to know things; as well as compassion, love – all these aspects that we would classify as qualities of the heart.
And we want to have our speech be like that of a Buddha, so not just limited in its ability to communicate, but able to communicate to everybody in a way that actually communicates to them, that they can understand. And we want to be able to act in the way that a Buddha acts, which is benefiting everybody. And actually the way that a Buddha is able to benefit others is by what’s known as an enlightening influence; in other words, effortlessly. A Buddha doesn’t actually do anything; just by this positive influence of a Buddha, it stimulates others to be able to grow and to develop in a positive way. If, of course, the others are receptive; they have to be receptive to a Buddha’s enlightening influence.
Now, since on the resultant level we want to have all these aspects simultaneously – on the resultant level we do have them all simultaneously, and on a basis level, actually, we also have them simultaneously. They are all there, present. So, in terms of our pathway tantra, our practice, we want to be also able to practice all these different aspects simultaneously, and this is what we do in tantra practice.
And so this other meaning of tantra – as the strings of a loom in which you can weave various things – so with our tantra practice with all these arms and legs and faces, it is a structure for being able to weave together all the different aspects that we develop on the sutra level practice. So all these arms and legs and faces, and all the things that they’re holding, and the colors, represent various aspects of these qualities, various aspects of the practices to attain these qualities, and so on; and many of them have several levels of what they represent, not just one.
And so we imagine – to start with, you work with the imagination – so we imagine that we have the body of one of these figures, and we keep in our mindfulness all the things that our arms and legs and faces represent, and not just to remember a list but to actually generate what they represent. So we have these aspects of body, aspects of mind, these good qualities. And at the same time, our speech is saying mantras, which we imagine is able to communicate and teach everybody, help everybody; everybody’s able to understand them.
And we have Buddha-activity going on as well, this enlightening influence: at the same time, we imagine that we are emitting lights that go out to everybody and relieve all their problems, bring them all good qualities, make offerings, etc. All of that while we are there as a Buddha, the Buddha-figure, without having to actually get up and go and more physically help them. Just by our presence, by these lights going out, helps them, influences them in a positive way so that they overcome their problems.
So we’re doing that all simultaneously, at the same time, in tantra practice. And, in this way, this acts as a cause – a path, as it were – to achieve “The Real Thing,” when all these aspects are able to function fully as the qualities and aspect of an enlightened Buddha.
And what we saw was, on a basis level, when we have these limitations of our unawareness, our confusion about reality, and the disturbing emotions, then what happens is that it activates these karmic potentials and we get a rebirth with more suffering, more confusion, more impulsive karmic behavior – more limitations. So what is very important in tantra practice is that, in order to bring about a resultant level of a Buddha from these networks, that we start on the basis of the understanding of voidness.
Voidness means an absence. Something is absent; it never was there. We imagine; the mind projects a certain way of how things exist. In other words, it makes things appear in a way that’s impossible. Like, for instance, just a simple example – not so simple – that we all pollute the environment. So our mind just makes it appear… What does it appear like? It just appears as though we’re doing something. We’re smoking. We’re producing smoke from cars, or whatever. It appears to just be there by itself. Our mind doesn’t make appear the effect of it, does it? And so the appearance is that we can do something and it has no effect. Now that doesn’t correspond to reality, does it? So what is absent is an actual referent of this appearance that actually exists in a way that would correspond to what appears; in other words: in reality doing things, polluting the environment, that has no effect. Well, that doesn’t exist. So there’s nothing in reality that corresponds to this deceptive appearance that our minds make appear.
We have limited hardware, with this type of brain, this type of body, these type of senses – they can’t really see or observe the effect of our actions right now when we’re acting. So if we believe that these appearances correspond to reality, then we have all sorts of disturbing emotions and confusion, and so on. That activates the karmic potentials to bring another rebirth with yet another limited body, yet another limited mind, and more unhappiness, and ordinary happiness that never lasts and never satisfies.
So to get these networks to give rise to something like a Buddha, a Buddha body and mind – or on the practice level, the pathway level, this visualization of a Buddha-figure and the type of mind and speech of a Buddha – we have to first get the understanding of voidness. So we have to understand that all these Buddha-nature factors don’t exist in impossible ways; these Buddha-figures don’t exist in impossible ways; the Buddhas don’t exist in these impossible ways. And with that understanding, free of disturbing emotions, free of this ignorance or unawareness – at least to some level, that we have it – then we could imagine that these Buddha-nature factors give rise to these purer forms, these Buddha-figure forms, rather than giving rise to a limited body and mind of a rebirth.
And even just being able to do this type of practice, start the practice and maintain the practice, with an understanding of voidness – that none of this exists in an impossible way, everything is interrelated, cause and effect, etc. – even just with our imagination, at some level of conceptual understanding that we have, that will act eventually as a cause, getting deeper and deeper and deeper, for actually being able to really make that pure transformation, so that we get the resultant state of a Buddha.
So if we really want to make our tantra practice more effective, we really need to understand the theory of tantra. What is it that we’re actually doing in the tantra practice, and why? And have some basic understanding of how it would work – how it could work, and how it does work.
So that’s the basic introduction, and we’ll continue with some description of the various parts of the type of tantra practice that most of us are engaged in – if we’re actually practicing tantra – which would be practice of a sadhana. Sadhana is a Sanskrit word and it means a method for actualizing ourself as one of these Buddha-figures. Method for actualization is the literal meaning. And then we’ll look at the different parts of it and how we could make our practice of each of these parts more effective.
So what questions might you have?
Question: We are speaking about impossible ways of existing of phenomena. If we’re speaking about impossible ways and we deny it, we say there is no such thing, then there is some way in which phenomena exist, right?
Alex: Well, yes. I don’t know if that came out clearly, but I think what you’re saying is that if impossible ways – when we refute impossible ways, do we then have that there are there possible ways? Yes, of course. Things exist.
More precisely, if we look at the theory of voidness, what is being refuted is what establishes that something exists? How do you know it exists? And there are various positions of what establishes that something exists. And what’s refuted is that this really is enough to establish that something exists. I take that back. Let me say it more precisely; that’s not so precise.
There is a certain way that – it’s more of a combination – there’s a certain way that one might think that things exist in a certain way, and that there are certain things that will prove or establish that it exists in that way. For example: Things exist truly from their own side, right there, objectively, where they’re standing, in front of our eyes. And what proves that, or establishes that, is that things function. This table exists. It’s right there, on its own, the way that it looks to me. And what proves that is that I can put this glass of water on it and it will hold it; it functions. Well, no one’s going to deny that the table functions. The table functions; it will hold this glass. But does that prove that the table exists as a table, all on its own, truly as a table? Well, this is what’s impossible, even though it does function. Because I can sit on it – then it’s a chair. I can burn it – it’s firewood. If I’m a termite, an insect, I can eat it – it’s food. You know, this little insect that eats wood. So just because it can hold a glass of water, doesn’t prove that, from its own side, there it is: a table; and it is, from its own side, a table and nothing else.
So when we say impossible way of existing, it’s a little bit more complex here – refuting an impossible way of existing – it’s a little bit more complex. It has to do with the way that something exists and what establishes it, what proves it. So the fact that it functions [as a table] doesn’t prove that it is truly established as a table, from its own side. Then it gets very, very subtle and very complicated very quickly. It can function as a chair for somebody that uses it as a chair. It can function as food for something that can eat it. It can function as firewood for someone who burns it. So is it all of these? Or is it none of these? What is it? There are many, many different levels of understanding of voidness, of what’s impossible. It can function as, as I said, a table, a chair, food, firewood. Could it function as a dog? Well, no, it can’t function as a dog. So what can it function as, and what can’t it function as, and why?
Question: Stools, too, and all that you mentioned – a table, chair, food, and firewood – all of these are impossible ways?
Alex: No, those are possible. But what’s impossible is that it exists from its side as these things, independently of how one labels it and uses it. In other words, there’s something inside it that makes it a table, chair, firewood, etc. And there isn’t anything inside it that makes it dog. That allows me to be able to use it as only certain things, but not other things. But one has to think very deeply about that, but nobody is denying that it can’t be used as these things, as what is possible.
What’s the Russian word for table?
Alex: Does this exist as a table or does it exist as a stol? What is it?
So one gets into these sort of questions. What allows you to call it a table and a stol but doesn’t allow you to call it (correctly) a dog? What if a group of people decided that “In our language, we’re going to call it dog”? Maybe in some African language, it’s called dog. What does dog mean? What it means in our language? What is it? Is it a dog? It starts to get very interesting.
Question: Is it possible to speak about table not in terms of our relationship with the world? Can you speak about it without the subject who is perceiving it? What will it be if we remove the subject?
Alex: If we remove the subject, you can’t talk about it; so there’s no analysis of it, there’s no knowing of it, no discussion of it without a subject. If nobody’s in this room – this becomes the interesting question – if nobody’s in this room, and you don’t have a spy camera or something like that working, is there a table in the room? How do you establish that there’s a table in a room? You can only establish that there’s a table in the room in relation to a subject, a mind that perceives it. There’s no way of establishing it separately, independently from a perception of it, or thinking of it, or a name for it, or something like that – which is associated with a mind that makes up a name.
So that’s the whole issue here. How do you establish that something exists? And it’s impossible, from a Buddhist point of view, to establish that anything exists independently from a mind. Now that doesn’t mean that it only exists in my head.
Question: But if we go beyond the frame of our individual mind and we speak in terms of the global universal mind of a Buddha then, from the point of view of this mind of the Buddha, we can speak about this object?
Alex: We can, but that’s in relation to a mind.
Question: Does it mean that while we are going through the meditation path and we achieve more and more subtle levels of mind, and our goal is the mind of the Buddha – does it mean that we perceive objects on more and more subtle levels?
Alex: In a more pure level, we would say “yes.” Both in terms of how they appear – the form in which they appear, their appearance – and how they appear to exist; both these. I’ll just use a gross example; this is not really an exact analogy. One can see you in terms of your physical body. One could also perceive you in terms of your energy, for example.
Question: If I am on the level when I see energy, subtle body, then at the same time I can see the physical body, right? But if I can see only physical body, it means that from that level – if I’m limited, then I can’t perceive the second level, this subtle level body, right?
Question: So the subtler my level of consciousness is, the subtler my perception, right? My way of how I perceive objects.
Alex: Yes. I mean, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, of course, because what we want to get rid of is the appearance of things existing in an impossible way. So, whether we’re talking about body or we’re talking about the gross body or subtle energy, both of them could appear in an impossible way. So one wants to get rid of that appearance of an impossible way of existing and be able to perceive all the different levels of what something could appear to be. Like a Buddha can appear in very subtle forms and a Buddha can appear in more gross forms.
Question: And my second question that is connected with that: is the form of a yidam culturally determined or is it the same for practitioners from any country?
Alex: Well, from the point of view of Buddhism, they would say that it is the same, regardless of which culture we come from, although these forms arose within Indian culture. The question really has to be asked is why would you change it and what would you change it to? Some people say, well, couldn’t we visualize the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, and these sort of figures, but actually the Christians would be highly offended if we did that. Should Indian and Tibetan Christians have Buddha on a cross? I mean, it’s just as offensive. And so what are we going to imagine? We’re going to imagine Mickey Mouse? I mean, what are we going to imagine? What different form are we going to use?
So, although these figures might be alien to us, they’re alien to Indians and Tibetans as well. You don’t find people walking around with three faces and six arms and many different colors. So it’s strange to them as well. But Tibetans use them, the Chinese use them, the Japanese use them. So what makes us any different?
Question: I asked because in Latin American countries there are some practitioners who have visions who see these yidams in a different way. For instance, Tara; but this Tara is with the extra head of an eagle. And people in control there, they have officially adopted these forms and say that these forms are okay.
Alex: Well, the thing is that each of these various figures can appear in many, many different forms. So we take Avalokiteshvara – that’s Chenrezig in Tibetan – it can be with white, there are red forms as well, some are sitting, some are standing, some have two arms, some have four arms, some have a thousand arms. So there are many, many different forms of any one yidam, one Buddha-figure.
So it is also said that when the practices become too overly popularized, so that people trivialize them, then other forms will be revealed – either in a vision, or some buried treasure text, or something like that. So having an eagle head or something like that, that’s not so unusual. I mean, there are forms of Vajrapani, for example, that has a horse’s neck and a garuda (which is a type of eagle) as part of it. So there’s nothing terribly special about what you describe in Latin America. It could be. It has a horse’s head and a garuda on top of it; an eagle. Combination Vajrapani-Hayagriva-Garuda, it’s called. So an eagle would be called a garuda in India.
But the point is that if there is another figure, another form that has been revealed of one of these Buddha-figures, then people doing the practice based on this form need to be able to achieve the results. Its effectiveness, its validity, is determined in terms of whether it works or not. It’s not just an hallucination of some schizophrenic crazy person.
Question: If the practitioner visualizes himself or herself as a deity but doesn’t have the understanding of voidness, will there be some difference in comparison with a person who has this understanding?
Alex: Oh, definitely. I mean, this is what we’ll be speaking about on the weekend. Without the understanding of voidness, to think that you actually are Tara or Chenrezig or whatever, there’s no difference from a crazy person thinking that they’re Napoleon or Cleopatra or Mickey Mouse. And so it can lead very easily to schizophrenia – imagining all sorts of weird things, totally out of touch with practical reality – because you have to understand the voidness of the Buddha-figure as well. And, as it says in the texts, if one visualizes oneself in these forms without the understanding of voidness, without bodhichitta, it just acts as a cause to be reborn as a ghost in the form of this figure. But these are things that we’ll discuss tomorrow and the next day.
Question: When we are speaking about understanding of voidness, are we speaking about our conceptual or intellectual understanding of voidness, or about the experience?
Alex: Well, conceptual understanding is an experience, so we have to be a little bit careful with our terminology here. But we’re speaking about… At first, it will be conceptual because that’s the only way that it can be, to start with. But then it needs to be, of course, nonconceptual. So there are various stages of how to attain that nonconceptual cognition. And what really is quite essential here is to know what is the difference between conceptual and nonconceptual. The difference between those two is not the difference between intellectual and intuitive. That’s a different way of dividing experience. That’s a Western way of dividing it. That’s not what is being referred to by conceptual and nonconceptual in Buddhism.
Conceptual is perceiving it through a category of voidness, through the general category of voidness. So every time I focus on voidness, although that’s an individual experience, I perceive it through: “Okay, this fits in the general category of voidness.” I don’t have to say the word in my mind. And so there’s something in-between the actual individual perception of voidness and the mind; that’s this general category: “Oh yeah, it’s in the category. Now I’m meditating on voidness again.” And it can be a very, very deep experience with all sorts of transformative things, but it’s still through this category. And, as I say, that doesn’t necessarily mean verbalizing it in our head. You know: “Voidness. Now I’m meditating on voidness.” It doesn’t have to be that, but the category is there.
Nonconceptual is perceiving it not mixed with the category. So it’s the individual, this particular experience, and – here’s the tricky part – you know that it’s the voidness, but you’re not mixing it with a category of voidness. But it’s very, very subtle because we’re not talking about whether you actually think “voidness” or not – that’s something else – because even if you’re not thinking “voidness,” the category can still be there.
Think of it with a simpler example. Dog. Many, many different types of dogs; they all look very, very different. So you look at this animal, and I could think “dog” – I could even have the word going on in my mind – but without even thinking “dog,” I see it as a dog. So I’m mixing it with the category “dog.” Now nonconceptually I know it’s a dog but I’m just, in a sense, relating to the animal that’s right here. Very, very subtle, what nonconceptual actually means and what conceptual actually means on a subtle level. It’s very, very difficult.
Question: Does it mean that we, at the same time, are working with our nonconceptual understanding of reality and it is becoming more and more subtle, and we are also working and we are developing our conceptual description of the world?
Alex: Well, most of the time our nonconceptual cognition is happening just for a tiny instant. Almost instantly it becomes conceptual. I mean, I look at all these colored… What am I seeing? I’m seeing colored shapes and, okay, I’m seeing objects as well. Now I know that all these colored shapes in front of me are people. Am I thinking “people?” No. I mean, I’m certainly not verbalizing “people” when I look at you, but I know that you’re people. So do I have a concept of people – that I am seeing all of you as people – that I’m mixing with seeing you as people? This is the interesting question. Well, there are certain associations with that category “people,” isn’t there? If I talk to you, there’s a possibility that you might understand. I’m not talking to a picture of people.
Now I suppose that the closest thing that we would have in the West is an idea; I have an idea of what a person is. That would be conceptual. Is it a preconception? Usually when we say preconception it has some sort of judgmental aspect to it: I have a preconception that you’re going to like me or you’re not going to like me. So that’s not the idea – that people can understand if you talk to them.
Participant: It’s not an idea?
Alex: A preconception is not necessarily the same as an idea, an idea of what a person is. A person has to – sitting here, they might be uncomfortable; they might have to catch a bus; they have to catch the metro; they might need to go to the toilet; I mean, there’s many things that are more neutral than: you’re going to like me or you’re not going to like me. But if I perceive you through the idea of “people,” somehow there’s a little bit of distance. Something is mixed with just the bare perception of you. So if I perceive you nonconceptually, does that mean I have no idea of what a person is? I don’t know what a person is? Well, it doesn’t mean that. I know what a person is. I know people need to – their legs could hurt, and they need to get home, and they need to go to the toilet. I know that, but that’s not mixed with seeing them as people. Or something like that.
But, as I say, it has to do with categories, actually. Category of people. And individual items fitting into a category, as opposed to just the individual items. Very, very subtle. Very difficult to recognize in our meditation. Very, very difficult. The indication is usually in terms of how vivid the object is: if it’s mixed with the category, not so vivid. A little bit – it’s said it’s veiled, slightly veiled. But usually when we are awake, this nonconceptual sense perception is so tiny a fraction that we can’t really recognize it. The time where we could recognize it is in dreams. Dreams are nonconceptual. What you see and hear in dreams are nonconceptual. You can think in a dream; that’s conceptual of course. But the dream image is much more vivid. But usually our mindfulness in the dream is very, very small, and we don’t even remember them.
Question: And here we probably should divide a dream state into dreams when we see images and deep sleep without dreams.
Alex: Right. We’re referring to the arising of not just visual images, but sounds, smells, physical sensations. You could imagine eating in a dream.
Participant: And the problem is that, as far as I know, from a Buddhist point of view, when we’re speaking about when we sleep and see dreams, this is also conceptual. When we see dreams – not in a deep sleep when we don’t see dream images – when we see dreams, as far as I know, it is conceptual.
Alex: Not necessarily, no. It’s not. You do have conceptual cognition in dreams, definitely. We think, you can plan, you could talk in your dreams, and stuff like that. But we’re talking about the actual seeing of a vision in a dream. That’s nonconceptual. It’s a different quality from seeing things with the eyes, and quite a different quality from just imagining something while we’re awake. It’s more vivid; it seems more real. And we’re usually not thinking very much.
So let’s end here with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.
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