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Home > Advanced Meditation > Tantra Teachings > Theory of Tantra in Terms of Inseparable Samsara and Nirvana > Session Two: Questions about Pure Vision and about Physical Exercises

Theory of Tantra in Terms of Inseparable Samsara and Nirvana

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, March 2007

Session Two: Questions about Pure Vision and about Physical Exercises

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:43 hours)

For our second session, let us begin with more questions that might be left over from our first session.

Dealing with Disturbing Emotions

Question: [missing]

Alex: So the question is, if I understood it correctly: When, on a practical level, we’re trying to go to sleep and there’s a lot of noise outside, and we have disturbing emotions because of that, such as anger, and lack of patience, and so on, how would these visualizations help us? By imagining that the people making noise outside, or playing loud music, are Buddha-figures, and the noise they’re making are mantras, and so on – isn’t this a bit of an escape? Is that what you were saying?

Participant: Yes, partially.

Alex: Partially escape. And also it doesn’t seem to work. [laughter]

Well I think that we need to remember that Buddhism is very rich in many methods. And the method of trying to see everything in a pure form is something which is quite difficult to apply in very challenging situations where we have strong disturbing emotions, particularly of anger. There are methods to work with that anger that we can apply from tantra, that are suggested by tantra. Like, for instance, redirecting that anger at the self-cherishing attitude which says, “I want to go to sleep. I’m more important than you who want to play music.” Or, as in the case of my apartment, the people sitting outside at tables at the cafe underneath my apartment, talking until three o’clock in the morning. And we can use that angry energy, to direct it against the self-cherishing – as is suggested in the Wheel of Sharp Weapons, this mind-training (lojong) or attitude-training text – to see that I’m just being very selfish, self-centered, and so on. But of course doing that with an understanding of voidness. It’s not as though we are beating ourselves because we think of ourselves as a truly existent solid “me,” therefore our anger is really a disturbing emotion, therefore we’re beating ourselves – “I’m so terrible” – and we feel guilty, and so on. We certainly don’t want to do that. That’s not the application here. But rather we want to use the strong energy, the forceful energy of that anger, remove from it – like with a filter – filter out the confusion and grasping for true existence, but use that elevated energy to smash through the self-cherishing attitude.

Now that might not enable you to go to sleep – it probably won’t – but it will at least eliminate your anger and the self-cherishing. Then you have to find another solution. In my case, I take my mattress off my bed and move it into the kitchen, which is an inner room where I don’t hear the street noise. I don’t hear the noise from my extremely loud neighbor, who never goes to sleep until around four o’clock in the morning, and who I hear through the paper-thin wall. I “give the victory to the other,” as we have in the attitude-training, the mind-training course. I don’t try to fall asleep with the noise, because I know I’m just really frustrated, and even if they’re quiet for a few moments then I’m tense because I am expecting them to start making noise again. Give them the victory. It’s no big deal. I can sleep in the kitchen.

So you find some sort of solution. The main thing is not to get angry. Visualizing them as Buddhas, and mandalas, and mantras, and so on, I find very difficult in that situation. In fact I must admit it never even enters my mind to use that method. That’s why we have many other methods that we can use. There’s of course the mahamudra method, which is also extremely difficult to apply, which is to just see this as the arising of a mental hologram and no big deal. What’s the difference between hearing loud noise and hearing the sound of our loved ones saying nice things to us? It’s just a sound. That also can help us not to get angry, but it’s not going to necessarily enable us to fall asleep.

The point is to not get angry, because that’s the real suffering. And the fact that we lie there and continue to try to fall asleep with the noise, when we’re not quite capable of doing that, is ignorance. That’s stubbornness. “I have to have my way!” And if there is no other place that you can move to in your apartment that is more quiet, you have to think of a better solution – of trying to find a better place to live, if you can. Earplugs aren’t that effective. I’ve tried them. They’re not that effective. It dulls the sound; it doesn’t eliminate the sound.

The Application of Pure Vision

So then the question is: where are these visualizations useful? In what situation would they be useful? Well I think it is when we are complaining, in our minds, about: “This is no good; this isn’t good enough. This is a terrible view from my hotel room.” “This person is really funny looking,” and so on – when we have all sorts of conceptual thoughts going through our head, complaining. At that point you can see, well, these are concepts; it’s conceptual thinking. I could also think of them in terms of a mandala of various figures. And as one of my friends, Western friends, pointed out, a mandala has many different kinds of figures in it: some forceful figures, some figures as couples, some figures single, and so on. So there’s room in the mandala for all these sorts of things, and see that I don’t have to experience this in a negative way.

Now this is the point that’s emphasized in seeing the guru as a Buddha. It’s the same thing, the same point here. Tsongkhapa explains it very nicely in Lam-rim chen-mo. He says when you see the guru as a Buddha… He doesn’t go into what developed later in the Gelug tradition – starting with the Second Panchen Lama’s lam-rim, and then Pabongka really elaborates on that very strongly in his lam-rim – of the guru is a Buddha, and Vajradhara said so, and all of that. There’s really a very big emphasis on “the guru is a Buddha.” Tsongkhapa didn’t do that in Lam-rim chen-mo. He explained it as: With the Buddha, you only see good qualities. That’s because a Buddha only has good qualities. But he says that you see the guru as you would see a Buddha, the same as you see a Buddha. So he’s explaining the same quotations from the tantra and sutra texts. But he says just as you see only good qualities in a Buddha, likewise it is most beneficial to do that with your teacher. Then immediately after that he says that, of course, a teacher has shortcomings and stuff like that – everybody has shortcomings; you don’t deny them.

And then the Fifth Dalai Lama makes a whole practice out of acknowledging the shortcomings of the teacher (on the conventional level). But there is no benefit in complaining about the shortcomings, no benefit whatsoever. All it does is get you depressed, and down, and increase your negative thoughts. And so you don’t deny the negative qualities, but you realize that there’s no benefit in focusing on them. Whereas if I focus on the good qualities, they can inspire me, they can uplift me, uplift my energy. And therefore I’m going to focus only on the good qualities – having of course examined the teacher to see that they actually do have good qualities. And then he says very clearly, it’s hardly ever going to be the case that you find a teacher that has all the qualifications that are listed in the texts, so you find one that has more good qualities than bad qualities, and you focus on them. This is what it means to see the guru in the same way as you see a Buddha, according to Lam-rim chen-mo – which, after all, is the major presentation of the lam-rim material in the Gelug tradition.

So it’s the same thing in terms of our ordinary application of the so-called “pure vision” that we try to apply in tantra practice. That when we deal with others – and ourselves for that matter… Sure, if we’re dealing with ourselves, we have to see our shortcomings so that we know what to work on. However, to complain about it, feel bad about it, and so on, is not productive at all. And likewise to complain about other people’s shortcomings is not productive. So we focus on the good qualities – and the good qualities could be represented by this visualization – and that helps us to get at least some inspiration. These people who are sitting outside drinking alcohol all night until three o’clock in the morning, talking loudly underneath my window, totally inconsiderate of the fact that many, many people live in these buildings above the cafe and can hear them and can’t sleep. Okay, that may be a negative quality of these people, a shortcoming. However, these people could be very appropriate objects of compassion. “How wonderful it would be if they could develop consideration of other people. How wonderful it would be if they didn’t spend all their time staying up all night drinking alcohol, and doing whatever, based on that.” So you develop a more positive attitude toward them without getting angry. And still you may not be able to fall asleep, and you still have to find a practical solution to how to deal with the noise.

Participant: [missing]

Alex: Well this is a good example. He had a guest last night, and he gave his bed to the guest and slept in the guest bed – which you found more uncomfortable, and therefore you couldn’t sleep so well. Well what would have been better? For the guest to sleep in the guest bed and not sleep well? Or for you to sleep in the guest bed and not sleep well? You’re both equal.

Now what I do in that situation is… First of all I don’t assume that the bed, from its own side – that one bed is more comfortable than another bed. Some people like a harder mattress, some people like a softer mattress. At my stage in life I find it unbelievably difficult to sleep on a hard futon, for example, whereas many people prefer a hard futon and don’t like a mattress that is foam, or whatever, that molds the shape of your back. So I give them the choice first: which is more comfortable for you? And then if they choose the one that I find more comfortable, well, you adapt. You find some way to deal with a futon. You know, I traveled all over the world, so many different places, slept in so many different beds (in people’s houses, because I hardly ever slept in a hotel), and often I would get very uncomfortable mattresses, so you have to be inventive. If the mattress was too soft, like for instance being on springs, you know, so that it sags in the middle, I would take the mattress off the bed and put it on the floor. If the mattress is too hard, you find some pillows, or even your clothing or something, to put underneath your hips and underneath your rib cage so that it’s a little bit more comfortable. You adapt. Right, so you tried, and it was frustrating that you weren’t able to adapt to it the way that you wanted to. Well you do the best. You do the best. If one night you don’t sleep so well, that’s not the end of the world. After all, sometimes we have to sleep sitting up on an uncomfortable airplane seat. Do that. You don’t have such high expectations. What else to do? Kick the guest off the bed, the air bed?

Ah, Daniel had a good suggestion: sleep together on the one bed. It depends on the guest and on your own flexibility, doesn’t it?

Anyway, any other questions?

How Can a Buddha Perceive Suffering?

Question: How can a Buddha develop compassion toward others if a Buddha just has pure vision, pure perception? Because you said that a Buddha’s mind doesn’t create appearances like that, that are connected to suffering, but is able to perceive suffering. Can you elaborate more on how that works? And how a Buddha can perceive suffering with others, although he normally only has pure appearances, so that he can, based on that, still have compassion there.

Alex: Okay. When a Buddha perceives suffering – true suffering and the true causes of suffering – that are on somebody else’s mental continuum, a Buddha always perceives inseparably the two truths about everything, and so there is the conventional (or relative) truth of that suffering and the cause of suffering, and the voidness of it. So the conventional truth of that suffering is an appearance of – they’re generating what represents an appearance of true existence. This is very important to understand.

I have a very complicated article, I must say, on my website, about the cognition of nonexistent phenomena. How do we cognize something that doesn’t exist? What exists is what can be validly cognized – the Buddhist definition – if it can’t be validly cognized, it doesn’t exist. Well everybody every moment cognizes impossible existence – what’s called true existence (bden-par grub-pa). That doesn’t exist. So how can they cognize it? What appears?

This is a very profound and difficult question, and obviously there are several ways of solving this dilemma. But, certainly, actual true existence can’t possibly appear because there is no such thing; and so their mind gives rise to something which represents true existence, or something which gives an appearance of true existence, but that doesn’t refer to anything real, and that appearance of true existence isn’t truly existent.

Now of course you could ask the question: how could it resemble something that doesn’t exist? Wouldn’t you have to have the model of something that doesn’t exist in order for it to resemble that? That’s not an easy one to answer. But, in any case, there is a confusing appearance (’khrul-snang). That’s why I like the word “confusing.” It’s deceptive appearance, that’s the technical term (or at least the way that I translate the technical term). It’s deceptive because it gives the appearance as if it were truly existent, but it isn’t. So a Buddha perceives this type of appearance that the other person’s mind is generating, because that conventionally exists, even though a Buddha’s mind itself is not generating anything like that. But a Buddha can perceive that. But a Buddha also knows that it’s not referring to anything real, so a Buddha also perceives its voidness at the same time.

Participant: So, in short, a Buddha can cognize what others perceive, how they perceive it, based on his mental powers. But at the same time he knows that this isn’t correct, because nothing actually exists truly.

Alex: Right. A Buddha is aware that this deceptive appearance generated by somebody else’s mind doesn’t refer to anything real. And so a Buddha perceives its voidness simultaneously – is not fooled by it. The other person believes in it, thinks it’s true, and a Buddha can perceive that the other person believes it’s true. In other words, a Buddha knows all the mental factors that are accompanying the person’s perception. So that’s the solution that I’m familiar with to this difficult question. There’s some masters who give a different explanation, but I’m not that comfortable with that.

Question: We hear several stories about how the Buddha reacted to people’s problems and we see that he reacted very appropriately: for example when a mother suffered from the death of her child, or when a brahmin had physical pain, and so on. And then one can think about whether the Buddha’s reaction was optimal or not; that is something that we can judge. My interest is more how the perception of a Buddha works. Of course you can look at these reports and judge whether Buddha’s reaction was appropriate or not. How does a Buddha actually perceive it, internally? And how can they deal with the suffering of others, although having only pure appearance himself. And how could he relate to the suffering of others?

Alex: But what an actual pure appearance would be like, this is something we’re not able to experience ourselves. From a sutra point of view, only a Buddha could experience that. From an anuttarayoga tantra point of view, if you achieve and activate the clear light mind, the clear light mind even before Buddhahood can perceive this. But the point is that when the ordinary mind – let’s not use the term “ordinary mind” because that has a technical meaning in Karma Kagyu – when the rougher levels of mind, not clear light level, make any appearance of conventional truth, it can only make an appearance of it as appearing as if it were truly existent. And when such a mind is totally absorbed nonconceptually on voidness, it cannot make an appearance of anything. And so it’s either one or the other. This is the Gelugpa explanation: either one or the other. And it’s only with the clear light level of mind, and the clear light level of mind is capable of making an appearance of the conventional truth of things without making it appear truly existent – because it doesn’t do that; it’s more subtle than that.

There are three levels of the subtlest appearance making minds. Often translated as the white, red, and black appearance – which is silly; I mean, it refers to something, but we’re not talking about appearances, we’re talking about a mind. But in any case, these make appearances of true existence – from a Gelugpa point of view they make these appearances of true existence – for both conceptual and nonconceptual cognition. Non-Gelugpas would say it only does that for conceptual. But, regardless, the rougher levels of mind that are not clear light have these appearance-making of true existence factors, according to Gelugpa. So it’s going to make an appearance of true existence.

So what is an appearance of something that dependently arises – if we describe pure appearance in a simple way – and isn’t an appearance of dependently arising phenomena as if they truly existed? There’s no way of knowing what in the world that would look like, unless we experienced it. One can have a mental image, a concept of it, but that would appear truly existent.

What does a Buddha perceive? That’s a difficult question to answer. You can only answer it theoretically. But a Buddha perceives everything simultaneously. So he doesn’t perceive things in categories (to perceive things in categories is what most conceptual thought is) and doesn’t perceive things in – to put it in simple language – in boxes, but perceives everything being interconnected with everything, throughout the ten directions and three times.

The Energy-Winds

Question: [missing]

Alex: Andreas is asking a question about the relationship between the mind and the energy-winds (rlung). I’d said that with a mind we can learn to control the energy-winds, but can’t it also be the other way around? That a disturbance of the energy-winds will make a disturbance of the mind?

Well, yes. The relationship, causal relationship, of working with one or working with the other can work both ways. But we have to understand what that causal relationship is. And the casual relationship is that… Well, let me revise how I say this. We can only understand the causal relationship here, between the mind and the energy-winds, if we understand the relationship between the mind and the energy-winds. And the relation between them is that they share the same essential nature (ngo-bo gcig) – is the technical term. And the same essential nature means that basically we’re talking about the same thing, but just from two different aspects of it. And these two different aspects of it are – from one point of view, there is mental activity. When we speak about mind in Buddhism, we’re talking about mental activity; we’re not talking about a thing. Put just very simply, without getting complicated here (it’s complicated enough): there’s mental activity, and that can be described from a subjective point of view of experience (that would be mind), or that same phenomenon could be explained from the energy point of view. And so we’re talking about the same thing here when we talk about mind and we talk about the energy. It’s just they share the same essential nature. It’s the same thing, just looking at from one point of view or another point of view. Subjective or objective, if we want to use our Western categories here.

Therefore if you emphasize or work with the experiential side, it has to affect the energy side, because you’re working on the same thing – it’s just a matter of what you are focusing on. And if you work with the energy side, of course it’s going to affect the mind, because it’s the same thing. So the causal relationship here is not a linear one of: you work on one and then the next moment the other one has changed or been affected. It’s a causal relationship of: if you throw a coin up in the air, you don’t just throw the head side of the coin up in the air, you also throw the tail side of the coin up in the air; you put the two together. So it’s like that. If you have worked with the mind sufficiently, the energies of the mind are automatically affected. So if the mind becomes more calm, the energies become more calm. If you work just with physical exercises and the energy becomes more calm, the mind becomes more calm. It’s the same thing. It’s just: how do we approach the issue?

The Importance of Physical Training

Question: If we look at many of the great Tibetan lamas, they don’t do terribly large amounts of physical exercise. And wouldn’t it be best to work on the two sides together, both the mental side and the physical side? Or what’s going on with these great lamas?

Alex: Well I would think, personally, that working on both sides would be necessary. When you practice the complete stage of anuttarayoga tantra (the highest class of tantra), there are physical exercises that one does to open up the channels and so on. Before this, in general tantra, there are the prostrations and this type of physical activity. But in order to get the body more pliable – and this is referring to the subtle energy system – there are certain physical exercises that they do. Do many people do them? Probably not. Are many people doing complete stage practice? Probably not. You need to be incredibly qualified to do that. At minimum, you have to have really, really good concentration, which most people don’t have.

So, do the Tibetans put much emphasis on things like martial arts, and stuff like that, which you would have in some other traditions – let’s say some Chinese traditions or Japanese traditions? No, they don’t. Nevertheless, the system seems to have produced some very highly realized beings, who are quite fat and not physically fit.

Participant: Some Shaolin monks are quite fat.

Alex: Even some Shaolin monks are quite fat, Daniel adds here. So I don’t know. I don’t know how you would justify the Tibetan way of training themselves. To say, “Well, you get a lot of physical exercise circumambulating, and prostrating, and having a prayer wheel going?” I don’t know.

Participant: [missing]

Alex: Christian points out that you have in the manner of teaching of some Kagyu masters, also you have the Nyingma masters, “kumnye” certain physical exercises. Namkai Norbu Rinpoche teaches what he calls “yantra yoga,” which are some exercises similar to hatha yoga in the Hindu system. There are some. That’s true. Are these teachers taking these exercises from more advanced stages of practice and teaching them to Westerners because Westerners like that sort of thing? That may in fact be the case. That may in fact be the case.

One would have to do a survey of how many actual Tibetan monks and practitioners in these traditions – and go back to when they were in Tibet – were taught these things and did them before they reached the tantra level. And I would be surprised if it were a large number. I’d be very surprised. I would think the main exercise that these monks get would be prostration. And for ordinary monks it would be doing the daily work of the monastery. Walking ten kilometers down the mountain to fetch water and bringing it up in huge buckets to the monastery. That’s a lot of exercise, but somebody had to do that. Most of these monasteries were certainly not right next to sources of water; they didn’t have running water, let alone fuel. So that was a lot of work, and the monks had to do that: the ordinary monks, not the Rinpoches. The ordinary monks did.

And even nowadays at the monastery I’m familiar with – Ganden Jangtsey, where Serkong Rinpoche is – the monks are all supposed to do the debate training, even if they’re not so intellectually gifted. But they take turns for – I forget how many months it is – of doing the work in the monastery. You know, of setting up the water bowls and the butter lamps and these sorts of things in the temple, and cleaning the floor, and helping in the kitchen, or whatever. They take turns. Everybody has to do it at some point, which is quite democratic, I must say. The Rinpoches don’t. The Rinpoches do prostration, if they do anything. Some of the more modern ones – like the young Serkong Rinpoche has a modern electric treadmill type of thing in his bedroom, which he has positioned in such a way that he’s walking uphill on the thing. And he is the most disciplined person one could imagine; ever since he was a small child, he uses that a half hour every single day when he’s at home. Of course he recites mantras and does other things at the same time, but he does his physical exercise. Many of them don’t.

So, yes, there are some physical exercises that are there, but I believe that the intention of them, and the place of them, was always as a preliminary for being able to work with the subtle energy system. And in fact if you look at qigong and these type of practices in martial arts, it also was intended to be able to work with the energy system, the way that it’s conceived in the Chinese systems. The application of that to actual fighting I think was very secondary.

Participant: [missing]

Alex: They give a very good point: that Buddhism is a developing organic system, and is there anything wrong in Tibetan masters teachings these methods to Westerners at earlier stages of the practice?

Absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this seminar, physical exercises are something which are not specifically Buddhist. They are things which are shared in common with many, many different systems. Martial arts, for example, can be done – in the Chinese system – can be done in the context of Buddhism; it can be done in the context of Daoism; it can be done in the context of Confucianism. It’s not at all the domain, the exclusive domain, of Buddhism. Theoretical background is quite different. So similarly one needs to practice any of these physical exercises that were originally aimed at working with the subtle energy system – one has to practice it within the context of the Buddhist framework that we’ve been discussing.

In the highest class of tantra when you do these physical exercises, as a start you’re visualizing yourself as a Buddha-figure. Just as a start. Therefore to take the Buddhist physical exercises and just practice them in a health club as yet another form of physical fitness and yoga would be – not something which is negative, but don’t call it “Buddhism.” Nothing wrong with it, but don’t call it “Buddhism.” “Exercises suggested from Buddhist practices.” But the real thing is with the Buddhist context of motivation, aim, the four noble truths, refuge, etc. – as a method to help us reach liberation and enlightenment to benefit others. Okay.

So let us take our lunch break, then, and we’ll continue at three. Thank you.