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Home > Advanced Meditation > Tantra Teachings > Practicing Tantra Effectively > Session Four: Lam-rim as the Foundation for Tantra Practice: The Initial Scope

Practicing Tantra Effectively

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, September 2010

Session Four: Lam-rim as the Foundation for Tantra Practice: The Initial Scope

Unedited Transcript
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We’ve been speaking about how to make our tantra practice effective. And this is based on the experience – that I think most of us have – in that if we actually are doing tantra practice each day, or perhaps not even each day, that it seems to be going nowhere. It can become an empty ritual, just something that we’re repeating day after day. And sometimes, if it’s in Tibetan, in a language that we don’t know, it seems really strange. And, at other times, even if we know supposedly what we’re doing, what we’re reciting, it’s very hard to put our hearts into it.

If we are going to do a tantra practice, it’s something that usually... from the empowerments that we receive, there’s a commitment to do it every day of our lives. Although many Tibetans will take empowerments with the motivation that they’re just planting seeds for future lives, and in this lifetime they can’t really hope to practice it at all – maybe just say a mantra – but in future lives they’ll be able to do that. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us really aren’t convinced on an emotional, gut level in rebirth. So to say that we’re just taking the empowerment to plant seeds for future lives – nice high-sounding words, but for most of us doesn’t mean very much. 

So, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are really just thinking in terms of this lifetime. And so, if we’re going to take an empowerment, it needs to be on the basis that we actually plan to practice what we’re receiving the empowerment for. Otherwise, why are we taking it? So, given that situation, then we need to make that practice effective or as effective as is possible. Now we hear the nice line that through tantra practice, especially the highest class of tantra practice, it’s possible to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, and even possible to do it within three years and three phases of the moon. A phase of the moon is a fortnight, either from new moon to full moon or full moon to new moon. And as several of my teachers have said, that although in theory it’s possible to achieve enlightenment through the tantra practices in such a short time, that’s highly unlikely. 

Tantra practice is extremely difficult, extremely advanced, as I’ve tried to indicate. And although it might not require three zillion countless eons of building up positive force, as is described in the Mahayana sutra path as being necessary for achieving enlightenment; nevertheless, it’s going to take a long time. Many lifetimes. Many, many lifetimes. Because it requires very, very intensive practice. I mean, if we’re really going to do it, that means spending twenty-four hours a day, every single day, doing it, practicing it. And who are we kidding? Are we really ready for that? 

So, as several of my teachers have said, we have to be careful with this line that we can achieve enlightenment so quickly through tantra. We have to be careful not to use that as an excuse for laziness. We want to follow an easy – so-called easy – speedy path, simply because we’re lazy; we don’t want to work hard. That’s why I think it’s very important not to be naive about tantra. And in explaining it, I try to avoid making it easy, making it sound simple, because it is not easy and it is not simple. So let’s not be naive about it. 

By explaining it in a little bit fuller way – and, mind you, it could be explained in a tremendous amount of more detail and more depth – the aim is not to discourage people. Or, in listening to it, the aim or the result is not to be discouraged. That is not the aim, to be discouraged. But the aim is to gain a very deep respect for how sophisticated this method is. In order to practice tantra effectively, it really is important to have tremendous respect for it and appreciation for it. Something very special. If we look at the enumeration of the thousand Buddhas that will come in this world age, only a few of them – different texts will give different numbers – but only a few of them will ever teach tantra, so it’s very, very special. And if we have a very high regard and respect for tantra, then if we are going to engage in it, we’re going to try to engage in it seriously. 

So what does it mean to be serious about it? It is not just to do a daily practice because you said that you were going to do it, and we sort of promised, when you took the empowerment, to the teacher – I mean, mind you, you don’t do it individually – but you promise that I’m going to do this practice, and so you do it. That’s not enough. Although of course that’s a great accomplishment – if you actually have the discipline to actually do it every day and not give up. That’s quite an accomplishment, but it’s not enough. A lot of people just give up after a while because they find it just too boring or they just don’t have time. Especially if you take empowerments as a young person who doesn’t have yet responsibilities of a family or a career and so on. So, very idealistic. – That’s the characteristic of the twenties in age. And so “Yeah! I’m going to do it!” And, you know, we all think we’re Milarepas, and so on. And later, when we actually have these responsibilities of family and career, then we give it up. We give up this practice. We don’t have time. 

So if we are dependable enough and stable enough that we actually do maintain a daily practice throughout our lives, we don’t give it up. And actually from among the people that I know who took these empowerments when they were – when I was young and when I took them, in my twenties – very few of them are actually still now, forty years later, doing it every day. Very, very few. That’s really sad, isn’t it? 

But if we’re still doing it, and doing it just out of routine – and usually racing through it because we don’t have so much time, so you do it as quickly as possible – then to really make it serious, you have to go back, way, way back to the very beginning of the lam-rim. The basic teachings, because without that foundation, practice isn’t really sincere. You’re just sort of doing a ritual and, in a sense, playing. And it could be even worse – that you’re just escaping into fantasy land. 

While maintaining the daily practice, even if it is seems to be not so deep or anything, we need to work on these, all these lam-rim steps – lam-rim is the graded stages, going through the sutra path – and really try to get each stage on a level which is very sincere, very emotionally deep, and it really is there; it’s present as a state of mind in you. And that is not a simple process. We shouldn’t fool ourselves. And it’s stated very, very clearly in all the texts that when we talk about these graded stages, that is exactly what they are: step one, step two, step three. You have to establish step one very firmly before you can go on to step two. Step two adds to it; it is based on step one. If you just skip over five or six steps and just try for the last one, it’s totally unstable. It doesn’t have the depth and support of the preceding stages. Big mistake. 

So let’s look at the importance of these various steps in the lam-rim as the basis for effective tantra practice. And each step that we are able to take, and be firm on it, benefits that daily practice – if we are doing a daily practice of tantra. We start with the… We’ve already spoken about the importance of a spiritual teacher to give us not only the empowerment, to give the more personal aspect to a commitment of taking vows and practice commitments. If you’re just doing it [making the commitment] to, abstractly, a visualization of the Buddhas, it’s not as effective as if you actually do it to a person, in terms of your emotional connection. 

The more respect we have for our teacher, spiritual teacher – even if we don’t see the spiritual teacher very often – the more respect you have, the more appreciation of the kindness of the teacher that you have, the stronger you will keep your commitment. You don’t want to be a complete: “How could I be so irresponsible as to have promised in the presence of this teacher that I’m going to do this, and then I don’t?” The stronger our respect for the teacher, the stronger our discipline will be. That’s why we have, in sutra, it says very clearly: imagine your teacher on the top of your head, or on your shoulder, or in your heart. There are many variants of it. It doesn’t matter where we have the teacher, but have the teacher with us, the mindfulness of the teacher, and then I don’t want to let them down. How could I act like that toward this person that I have such tremendous respect for? 

So this relation with a spiritual teacher, it has to be – it’s not just somebody who’s inspiring; it’s somebody that deeply moves our heart. We can say, well, it’s an emotional aspect to it. But when we talk about an emotional aspect – there are different types of belief, it’s called, and one of the types of belief that we need to have with the teacher is the type of belief that clears your mind of any disturbing emotions toward the teacher. So the deep emotion that we feel for the teacher is respect and appreciation. It’s not clinging. It’s not that you’re going to get angry and criticize if there’s something that I don’t like. It’s not arrogance: “I know better than you.” None of that. It’s a very stable state of mind. It’s not without feelings though; it’s a very deep feeling, but a nondisturbing type of feeling. We’re not complaining that: “Oh, you don’t have time for me, personally.” None of that. 

And, as we’ve spoken about Buddha-nature, it’s not that I’m this horrible miserable creature down here, with no qualities, and you’re so wonderful up there, and we worship you. Certainly not worship of the teacher, because we always have discriminating awareness. We are very clear what the good qualities of the teacher are and what their shortcomings are. We don’t deny them. The Fifth Dalai Lama says that quite clearly. But there’s no point in focusing on the shortcomings. You don’t have any benefit from focusing on the shortcomings and complaining and criticizing. Focus on the good qualities because there are far more good qualities than shortcomings. 

Then think in terms of the precious human rebirth that I have. I mean, there’s the standard list – I don’t have to go through all the lam-rim teachings with you – that I have the temporary freedom, a respite from these worse conditions that would prevent me from practicing; and I have all these wonderful opportunities. There’s lists of these. But particularly important here, not mentioned in the standard lists, is that we have the basic constituent features as a human being. We’ve got the subtle energy systems and chakras and all these things, which then can be used on the path to enlightenment. So, in addition to the precious human rebirth, that’s even more important in tantra because we have really the working basis for that, that we would not have in any other life form. 

So one of the tantric vows is not to abuse our aggregates – not to abuse our body and mind – because it’s very precious and we need to use it. So pushing it too hard, for example, that just really causes problems in our energy system. We need to of course not go to the other extreme of being lazy. But get enough sleep. Eat properly. If you’re sick, go to a doctor. These sort of things. Don’t abuse your body and mind. Get enough exercise. Eat properly. These sort of things. Don’t just pollute your mind with violence and pornography and all these other things. 

And what happens is that if we don’t appreciate the precious human rebirth that we have, we waste it. We don’t practice. We don’t try to work on our motivation. We don’t use it. I mean, to just do what’s called an empty ritual – just go “Blah blah blah blah blah” and ring your bell every day – that’s wasting your precious human rebirth, even though you might think, “Oh, I’m doing this great tantra practice.” You’re just repeating a ritual. There’s no depth to it. 

Now it’s not a total waste of time doing this empty ritual. Of course not. We develop discipline. We develop a sense of responsibility that we’re going to do it every day. There’s some special – if we’re doing it in Tibetan, there’s a rhythm to it. So it is helpful. We connect with the lineage. – That’s fine. But we’re not taking the fullest advantage that we can. And this is the point of the precious human rebirth – to take the fullest advantage of it. But, even if we try to practice more and more effectively, don’t go to the extreme of pushing yourself too hard. That’s abusing your aggregates. 

Then we need to think – next thing in the lam-rim is about death and impermanence – that this precious human rebirth is going to end; it’s impermanent. Death will come for sure. We never know when. And nothing is going to be of help unless we have actually built up the positive habits of dharma practice to avoid worse rebirths – losing a precious human rebirth; not getting it again. 

Now I have tried to explain – there’s no need for me to repeat in great detail – I’ve tried to explain how, in tantra practice, what we’re trying to do is to get rid of death and rebirth, which is the basis for experiencing all the sufferings that we do, from lifetime to lifetime. And, in the highest class of tantra, we actually do practices that are modeled after what happens in the process of dying, going through a bardo intermediate stage, and being reborn. And we do practices like that so that we build up the habit that this will substitute the actual attainment of Buddhahood, modeled on that; will substitute instead of our ordinary death, bardo, and rebirth.

When we die, our rough consciousness – sexual thoughts, all that sort of stuff – dissolves. We get down to the very, very subtlest level of mind; mental activity and energy. And if we still have unawareness and we still have the tendencies of disturbing emotions – I mean, at that level you would only have the tendencies not conscious, not manifest; but you still have those tendencies; you still have the karmic potentials – they’re going to get activated. Then what happens? You get rebirth. And the point here is that it could be a worse rebirth not a human rebirth, not a precious human rebirth. So what we want is to be able to get down to that subtlest level of mind and not activate all this garbage that is there, but instead – in the same process as that subtlest level gives rise to a samsaric type of appearance and existence, it can also give rise to an enlightened appearance and existence, if we have understanding of voidness and bodhichitta motivation

So the first stage of tantra, we just visualize, we just imagine getting down to that subtlest level. And, instead of generating from that our usual samsaric type of existence, we generate from it an enlightening form, these Buddha-figures – a simple form, like bardo, analogous to bardo; a more complex form, analogous to rebirth. So the simple form, similar to Sambhoghakaya; the complex form, similar to Nirmanakaya – the two types of appearance of a Buddha. 

If we’re practicing the highest class of tantra, then by working on the initial stage with our imagination like this – this visualizing all of this – then on the what’s called the “complete stage,” when everything now is complete for being able to actually work with the subtle energy system, then out of the subtle energy system we get to this subtlest level of mind. And we generate out of that subtlest energy these actual subtle forms – rather than a samsaric form – called “illusory body.” And this, being able to do it in meditation – of course, we can’t sustain it forever; we come out of the meditation – but being able to do it in meditation, generating these things with working with the subtle energy system, will be the direct cause for actually being able to do it at the final point, in which it gives rise to us as an enlightened being, as a Buddha. 

If we don’t believe in death and rebirth, this whole thing becomes meaningless. What are we doing with these practices if we don’t believe, we don’t have this feeling of impermanence – okay, I’m going to die – and there will be bardo and rebirth? And now I want to avoid it being just an ordinary death, an ordinary bardo, and an ordinary rebirth, because that’s just going to – in the case of the initial level – it could lead to a worse state of rebirth, and I don’t have a precious human body anymore; I can’t even continue with my practice. If you don’t believe that, what are we doing with the practice? Now to really – on a gut level, we say in English – deep within our heart, to be totally convinced: We’re going to die. I have this opportunity now, but I’m going to die, definitely. I have no idea when that will actually happen. And I know what is going to follow, in terms of a bardo and a rebirth, and I certainly want to avoid that. Especially what I want to avoid is activating negative potentials and being reborn in a worse rebirth. 

Even if we’re thinking in terms of the structure of the four noble truths – I’m doing this practice in order to get rid of suffering, and I’m looking at the cause of suffering in terms of selfishness – or whatever, whatever depth we’re looking at it, we’re not taking death, bardo, and rebirth seriously. We’re not looking deeply enough at what is the true problem and the true source of the problem – the first two noble truths. So what could this degenerate into? We have to recognize what could it degenerate into, our practice. What could our practice degenerate into, in a way in which we still think that it is a Buddhist practice? 

It could be I’m aiming to overcome unhappiness, which of course we need to overcome, but that’s just the first level of the truth of suffering: what’s true suffering. And how am I going to overcome unhappiness? I’m going to escape into this fantasy land of the Buddhas and all these nice forms, and everything is perfect, it’s a pure land, and so on. So that is really trivializing the tantra practice; really, really trivializing. And just to go to a pure fantasy land, that’s not really going to rid us of our problems. It’s like going to an internal movie and watching a cartoon. 

Also, the more that we are aware of death and impermanence, then we will do a daily practice because we never know when today’s going to be my last day. We could be hit by a truck. We could have a heart attack at any time. And also, if we’re thinking to do retreats – by retreat, I don’t mean just a weekend seminar in the countryside – but if we’re thinking of doing an intensive practice with hundreds of thousands of mantras and stuff like that, we won’t put it off. That doesn’t mean that we rush into these retreats unprepared. To take it seriously, you make all the preparation. What do we need in order to not just make it a waste of time? Very easy to sit in a three-year retreat and spend the whole time with mental wandering

So death, impermanence, take rebirth seriously. And then the next thing is to think of the worse rebirth states. So this really reaffirms that I want to do something to avoid them. And in our tantra practice, when we think of helping beings in all different realms and so on; well, we need to take these lower realms seriously; otherwise we’re just thinking of benefiting people I know or, at best, maybe all human beings, maybe some animals as well. I don’t know about the insects but, okay, the animals. Incomplete. But we need to not just appreciate that there are others that are now experiencing these worse rebirth states, what we need to really realize here is that I could experience that. And to take that very seriously, that I – if you think in terms of beginningless life, beginningless mental continuum – I’ve certainly built up all the negative potentials to be reborn as a cockroach or worse. Do I really want to build up more negative force? Do I really want to activate that negative force? Certainly not. We have to take that quite seriously, because that will give us even more energy to really try to do something about it to avoid that. 

And although it might be difficult for us to really take seriously and relate to what life would be like as a clutching ghost (these so-called hungry ghosts), and being born in one of these hell realms – it might be quite difficult to relate to that, but very, very helpful to take seriously the life of human beings who are in the worse states, in the poorest countries, living in the worst conditions, exploited, starving. Think of all the poor people in Pakistan, with this terrible flood that flooded – I don’t know, what was it – one third of their country. They lost absolutely everything. They didn’t have very much to start with. They can’t even find dry ground to stand on. Imagine what that would be like to be like that. Imagine what it would be like to be a type of animal – let’s say a small fish – that, at any time, a larger fish can come and eat you alive, bite off half of you and then eat the rest. If you really take it seriously, in terms of what it would be like to experience that, then you really have this strong intention: that I really want to avoid that. 

Then refuge. What I like to refer to as a safe direction. What are we aiming for? We’re aiming for the third and fourth noble truths, basically. So a state in which all these obscuring factors, all these things that cause rebirth and the suffering that we have in rebirth, all of those are completely removed – a true stopping – from our mental continuum; and correct understanding and all the good qualities fully realized. So that’s the deepest Dharma Jewel, the deepest Dharma Refuge is the third and fourth noble truths on a mental continuum. 

True suffering: so, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, the basis for the other types of suffering. The true causes for that: our unawareness, disturbing emotions, karma – the things that perpetuate this samsaric existence. So we have to have, for [attaining] the third noble truth, the fourth noble truth, that correct understanding will eliminate these causes and eliminate suffering, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. So the true stopping of it: the third noble truth. 

So if we’re not totally convinced – this is not easy at all – totally convinced of the basic purity of the mental continuum and Buddha-nature, and all these factors that are there – if we’re not convinced of that, and convinced that all these obscuring things are fleeting and temporary, they can be removed, and we can achieve a true stopping of it, what are we aiming for in our tantra practice? If we don’t think that death, bardo, and rebirth, the experience of that is something which could be removed from the mental continuum, and the mental continuum will continue on, on the basis of all the good qualities of Buddha-nature factors – if we don’t think that’s possible, what are we trying to do in getting rid of death, bardo, and rebirth? To really put your heart into trying to get rid of death, bardo, and rebirth, you have to be firmly convinced that it is possible – there is such a thing as a true stopping of that – and there is something which will eliminate it: the true path. 

So if the deepest Dharma Jewel, the deepest Dharma Refuge, is the third and fourth noble truths – I mean, sure, it’s represented by the books, the texts, and the teachings, and so on, but the deepest level are these: the third and fourth noble truths – then if we’re not convinced that somebody has actually achieved this – namely the Buddhas; now we get the Buddha Jewel – and there are those who have achieved it, at least in part – the Arya Sangha – how can we hope that we’re going to achieve it? “I’m so special. Nobody else has ever achieved it. There was never a Buddha, but I’m going to become liberated.” It’s a farce, isn’t it? It’s quite arrogant actually. 

I make a difference, in my way of explaining Buddhism, between Dharma-Lite and Real Thing Dharma. Like Coca-Cola Lite and Real Thing Coca-Cola. The Real Thing is aiming for liberation from samsara and enlightenment. And Dharma-Lite is just trying to improve this lifetime. And it’s beneficial to practice Dharma-Lite – it’s not that it’s not beneficial – but it’s not The Real Thing. 

But what about tantra-lite and Real Thing tantra? What would tantra-lite be like? “I’m trying to do this – I’m doing this practice basically to benefit this lifetime.” I mean, sure, we have the idea I’m going to gain enlightenment in this lifetime, but it will be okay if it at least benefits this lifetime. And has anybody ever really reached enlightenment? “Well, I don’t know. How would I know? So it would be good enough to go really far in that direction, and I’m not going to worry about was there ever really an enlightened being. Are there ever really Arya Sanghas?” The lite version. 

“So I don’t really believe in rebirth and in that whole aspect of the Real Thing Dharma.” So a lite version would be: “Perhaps I’m just using tantra to overcome my negative self-image.” And to have a more positive self image, which certainly is one aspect of imagining ourselves as these Buddha-figures because they each represent mainly – I mean, they represent the whole thing, all of enlightenment – but they specialize in compassion, or clarity of mind, or energy, or positive energy, or whatever. So improve my self-image; positive self-image. 

So in these practices in which we imagine going down to the subtlest level of mind, clearing away all ordinary appearances and things – similar to death – and then generating in a subtle form and then in a full form which are pure, similar to bardo and rebirth and similar to Sambhoghakaya and Nirmanakaya. (Going down to the subtlest level is similar to Dharmakaya.) So, instead of that, we do a lite version. So what is the analogy that we might think of? 

We might think of in terms of closing down the computer which is giving not a very nice program – it’s not working very well – and so I shut it down and then I reboot. And so I shut down all my negative thinking, and my low self-esteem, and negative self-image, and all of this garbage that’s going on around here, and I shut down the computer – this program, I don’t like this program; it’s not working well – go down, shut it off, and then we reboot. And we reboot now with: it’s going to work much better, it’s a much nicer program, it has really good video and really good sound, and all of that. And now I’m in my pure fantasy land of a Buddha-figure. That would be a Dharma-Lite version. 

And, especially if we do this without any understanding of voidness – this rebooting our internal computer, as it were – staying within the context of just this lifetime, then we’re going to have as much problems with the new program that comes up as we had with the old one. There’ll be attachment, there’ll be arrogance, there’ll be incredible naivety. If we really know, “Now I’m really Tara,” or “I’m really Chenrezig.” “I’m so holy. I’m so wonderful.” Even if we don’t go to that extreme of identifying so strongly that I am this figure or that figure, it could be with a tremendous feeling of “I’m such a high practitioner. I’m so cool.” I mean, whatever. These type of really disturbing attitudes based on our tantra practice. There’s a big danger. And even if we have a little bit of understanding of voidness that we apply here – in terms of being able to reboot the computer – very helpful, but it’s not going deeply enough to be able to actually achieve liberation and enlightenment. 

And the last point in terms of this initial scope – everything that I’ve been referring to here is an initial scope of motivation – is thinking of destructive behavior and how that produces the worse rebirths, and so on. And so if I’m going to go in this direction toward achieving the third and fourth noble truths then, at least as a start, I have to avoid destructive behavior. So the more we take this aspect of the initial scope seriously, the more strength there will be to refrain from breaking our vows: the bodhisattva and tantric vows, and the basic pratimoksha vows which are the basis for bodhisattva and tantric vows. Pratimoksha vows are… even if we’re not a monk or a nun, at least refrain from the grossest type of destructive behavior: taking the life of others, stealing, lying, etc., because we understand what are the results of such type of behavior in terms of losing this opportunity and getting more and more suffering, especially in terms of rebirth. 

We need to take all of this quite seriously, so that we actually keep our commitments. And we understand that what is the heaviest of these destructive actions that we want to refrain from is having a distorted antagonistic attitude – distorted, antagonistic thinking – which in this case would be: “This tantra practice that I’ve been doing is just stupid. It’s useless. Anybody who does this, it’s just a waste of their time. And this whole path toward working toward enlightenment is a waste of time because it can’t be done,” and you give it all up. That’s the worst. And why is it the worst? Because we have cut ourselves off from the methods that are going to help us to avoid suffering. So all we’re left with are methods that will produce more suffering. So that’s the worst because it’s the basis for everything else that could go wrong. We’ve cut ourselves off. 

So that’s why it’s very important, before we really get involved with tantra – or if we’ve gotten involved prematurely – to really be convinced that this is a worthwhile path that actually can work. And, for that, we have to understand how it works and go through all these points that I have been saying for making our practice more effective, based on a firm foundation in lam-rim. 

So let’s stop here for our break.