Theory of Tantra in Terms of Inseparable Samsara and Nirvana
Session Three: Questions about Concepts, Energy-Winds, Extrasensory Powers, Mantras, Inspiration, Initiations, and the Four Purities
One point that came up during our lunch break, that Andreas mentioned, was that – in connection with our question concerning physical training in the Buddhist context, particularly in the Tibetan Buddhist context, particularly in the tantric context – the concept of what is being physically fit can be quite different. In the West when we talk about being physically fit and training our bodies, we’re basically training our muscles and our flexibility, I suppose – the stretching exercises and things like that. Whereas from the tantric Buddhist point of view, being physically fit is training the subtle energy system. And although you can’t say that the subtle body, with its energy systems and so on, is totally independent of the grosser physical body, there doesn’t seem to be the prerequisite that our muscles be strong and fit for the energy system to be properly developed.
If you think of examples like Milarepa, I don’t think Milarepa was particularly muscular or physically fit from our Western point of view. Yet obviously his inner energy systems were extremely well trained. Serkong Rinpoche – the old Serkong Rinpoche, my old teacher – he certainly did practice on this complete stage level, because his attendant reported to me that he was doing all sorts of postures and these type of exercises, and so on, in the middle of the night when everybody was asleep, when once he did actually share a room with him at night. But he was extremely overweight and wouldn’t at all be considered physically fit by any Western point of view. So the emphasis is quite different.
Question: Categories are associated, you mentioned, with most conceptual thinking, but not all conceptual thinking?
Alex: Yes. Space is an example of something which is known conceptually. It’s an imputation, but it’s not a category. A category would be, like, the category of “human being” or the category of “woman” or the category of “yellow.” It’s associated with a word, basically, that we fit all individual examples into. So space is a mental construct, but it’s not a category. You could have a category of space, of course, but space itself is the usual example of something that is not a category.
Question: Because there aren’t instances of it?
Alex: Because there aren’t instances of it? No. An individual space is not a category. Categories – you can have general categories and individual categories, but the individual category is still a category. But space – individual spaces – are not categories.
Participant: I don’t see the difference.
Alex: You don’t see the difference? I don’t know how better to explain that. Space is… well, this is a very difficult question. Let’s just leave it at that. Because space is, remember, an absence of tangibility and obstructability which accounts for something occupying three dimensions. So we’re not talking about a volume of space.
Question: Would the other schools put it differently?
Alex: Would the other schools put it differently? No, I don’t believe so. It’s conceptual. Then, of course, there’s a very complicated issue of… How do cows, for instance… I mean, do you see a space? If you see a space… What is it that when you see…
Space is an absence of tangibility and obstructability. So that when we see an open door and we say that we see an open space – let’s say a cow sees the open door of the barn; what does the cow actually see? The cow sees the wall, or whatever it is that’s on the inside of the barn, doesn’t it? And somehow it imputes that there’s an open space there, nothing obstructing motion or tangible, that it can walk through. A cow doesn’t smack into the wall. A cow knows how to walk through an open door. But, nevertheless, it’s an imputation, it’s a conceptual imputation on the shape and form and colors that it sees through the open door. It’s conceptual, but it’s not a category.
Well, then, it requires further analysis of what a category is. There are two types of – well, there are many types of category but, in general, we can speak of an audio category (sgra-spyi), which has to do with a sound… In other words, I say the word “table” and you say the word “table.” Whether I say “table” [low pitch], or I say “table” [high pitch], or I say “table” [silly voice], or whatever, each of those sounds will be individual members of the audio category of “table.” So we can understand that we’ve heard the word “table,” regardless of the voice that it’s said in. So that’s one type of category. And then there’s a meaning category (don-spyi) – of what the sound refers to. There are object categories (don-spyi) like, for instance, you see an orange sphere, and there’s a certain smell, and there’s a certain taste, and so on, that is only known by one individual sense, and then there’s the object category “orange” that all of that belongs to. So there are many different types of category.
Now when we talk about space, you could have an open space. You can speak about the category “open space” that many instances and many individual open spaces fit within that category, but an individual open space is not a category.
This was an introduction to tantra, so enough of this question, then. [laughter]
So we have categories with these Buddha-figures. So there is the category Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara, and there can be many different forms of that deity: with four arms, with two arms, with a thousand arms, and so on. They all fit within the category of Avalokiteshvara. And even the four-armed one-faced figure, each person’s visualization of it is going to be slightly different, and each way in which you visualize it each day – with this clarity or that clarity, or this size or that size – is going to be different. So when we visualize it, we visualize something through a category. There’s the category Chenrezig. And then there’s what actually appears in our visualization. There are also many different Chenrezig practices, from different traditions, different sadhanas, and so on, yet they all fit within the category of a Chenrezig practice. That’s actually quite important to know.
Now they do say that one could have a nonconceptual vision of Chenrezig. Then it gets into the difficult problem: is there actually a being, Chenrezig, that one perceives nonconceptually? Is it a generation of your own energy-winds that you’re perceiving nonconceptually? Or what? So actually the topic of categories and conceptual cognition, in relation to tantra, is a relevant topic.
Alex: Right. So in the book on the history of Tibet that His Holiness wrote with Thomas Laird, His Holiness mentioned that he conceives of Avalokiteshvara as an actual higher being. Yes. So, many of them are. Are all of them an actual being with an individual mental continuum? I really don’t know. I have no idea.
Now space – for example, when you’re doing a visualization of a mandala and there’s a certain amount of room, of empty space, between the various figures in the mandala, that’s clearly not only conceptual, but that’s with your general category of what an open space is. So that’s different.
Question: What is an energy-wind? Is it a subtle type of material?
Alex: The problem in your question is what do we mean by “material”; that’s a difficult word. But within the categories of different types of nonstatic phenomena – things that are affected by causes and conditions, and that change – we have forms of physical phenomena (gzugs), ways of being aware of things (shes-pa), and then things that are neither (ldan-min ’du-byed). So it’s a form of physical phenomenon. Can it be seen with the eye? No. Not with the ordinary eye. But neither can sights and sounds that appear in dreams. Those also are forms of physical phenomena, but they’re not perceivable by the eye. So it’s like that. But anything that is made from these subtle energy-winds, or the chakras, the channels, the drops – creative energy drops – all these things in this system are part of samsara. You don’t have those as a Buddha. Let’s make that a little bit more specific: a Buddha has the subtlest energy-wind, which is the subtlest wind associated with the clear light mind, but a Buddha doesn’t have anything grosser than that. So a Buddha doesn’t have chakras and these sort of things.
So for instance in the Kalachakra system, when you have the stacking of the 21,600 drops of creative energy things – or however you want to call them – creative energy drops within the central channel, all of that disappears and is gone when you actually achieve Buddhahood. They’re not there anymore. That’s something within the Kalachakra system. If you are not familiar with it, don’t worry about it. Something that you do within the energy systems, a certain moving of creative sparks (or something like that) of energy.
Alex: Right. So the question concerns the samsaric and nirvanic levels. When various people with special abilities are able to see auras, or – what were the other examples – a medium sees past and future lives, things like that, is this dealing with the nirvanic level?
No, it’s not. That’s still a samsaric level. Auras, energy – Buddhism doesn’t really speak about auras, as such, but, in any case, the subtle energy system with all these channels and so on – that’s samsaric. So auras would be in that same type of category. Being able to see past and future lives, what you see or know is samsaric. These are samsaric levels.
Now of course the question is whether or not you actually are aware of these things with eye consciousness and ear consciousness, or whether it’s mental consciousness that has these extraphysical powers. There’s a list of them, of the extraphysical powers that one can achieve. They’re the byproducts of having a stilled and settled state of mind, shamatha. That’s a perfectly concentrated state of mind with the sense of fitness that goes with that. And one gets these various abilities. But, as I say, there’s a difference of opinion as to whether those are with eye consciousness, or mental consciousness, or whatever. But they’re all – within that list, I believe it’s called the deep awareness eyes, which only a Buddha has. So that’s why it’s hard to classify them as a whole. But in any case they are – aside from that – they’re all taking as their object samsaric objects, samsaric things.
Serkong Rinpoche use to explain this very nicely. That when you buy a bag of rice in the bazaar it comes in a paper bag – or in a newspaper, or something like that, depending on where we buy it – and although you get the paper bag along with the rice, your purpose of buying it was not to get the paper bag. You wanted to get the rice. Whether you wanted the paper bag or not, you got the paper bag along with it, that it was in. So similarly what we are aiming for in the shamatha practice is the state of mind of shamatha, this stilled and settled perfectly concentrated state of mind. And whether you want it or not, these extrasensory abilities come with it.
Now despite that, Atisha, in Lamp to the Path, puts a big emphasis on these extrasensory powers and says that they’re really necessary for being able to help others more than we normally are. Because with these we can see much further than the ordinary eyes when there is danger and we can hear when there’s danger. If we’re a little bit aware of past and future lives – usually the emphasis is on past lives – you have a clearer idea of what somebody’s problems might be. If you can read somebody’s mind, who’s not communicative, you can also have a better idea of what their problems are, what their difficulties are. So they’re very useful for being able to help others, but one doesn’t aim just for those.
What further questions do you have? As I said, I didn’t really want to structure this weekend with long lectures and explanations; that I would rather have it grow organically from your questions. And then we’ll get to what you requested, Daniel, of going through some of the features in a sadhana.
Question: Is there any realistic expectation that in the beginning visualization practices we’re going to make a difference with our energy-winds?
Alex: I doubt that. I think what affects the energy winds a little bit more would be mantra recitation. Because that adds a certain rhythm to the breath, and that affects the rhythm of the energies in the body. I suppose it’s a little bit like – what is it called – alpha wave biofeedback, or something like that. Neuro-feedback. Where you generate a certain frequency of brain wave and reinforce it. I think with a mantra you generate a certain – something similar to that – a certain frequency. This is one of the benefits of the recitations being in such a perfect meter, because also that makes a much smoother flow of your energy when you recite it, and that helps to calm the energies within our bodies.
Question: Is it necessary to recite a mantra with a specific rhythm?
Alex: The mantra has a rhythm to it. I mean, you could sing the mantra differently, you know, OM MANI PADME HUM, OM MANI PADME HUM [reciting] or OM MANI PADME HUM [singing]. That’s singing. But just OM MANI PADME HUM by itself has a certain shaping of the breath. At least this is the theory.
Question: What is the nature of a mantra, and how do we recite this?
Alex: This is something that we discussed in class, didn’t we, this last week. But let me repeat it for those who weren’t here. That His Holiness always emphasizes the importance of reciting mantras (if we have a choice) according to the Sanskrit pronunciation. Although of course we can’t be absolutely positive how it was pronounced in Sanskrit 2000 years ago, but particularly that deals with certain letters that are pronounced differently in different modern dialects. But in any case it’s quite clear from the rules of Sanskrit grammar whether they’re long syllables, short syllables, and so on, since most of the mantras are made up of Sanskrit words. But then also there are certain, I wouldn’t say nonsense words, but words that are just there for the sound quality. ILI DILI SILI MILI, these sort of words that are in some of the mantras, that actually are codes for various meanings, depending on where the letter that’s in it is in the alphabet, and so on.
But, in any case, the Tibetans don’t pronounce the mantras exactly the same way as they would be pronounced in Sanskrit. “Vajra” for instance, as in Vajrapani – OM VAJRAPANI HUM – the Tibetans would say OM BENZAPANI HUM. Vajrasattva they pronounce “benzasato.” So this is clearly a different pronunciation. And when it goes into other Asian languages – “vajra,” the Mongolians pronounce it “ochir,” and in Chinese it’s pronounced even more differently, and in Japanese (pronouncing the Chinese characters) it’s pronounced even more differently.
So then the question is: is it effective to pronounce them in a different way from the original meaning? And you’d have to say that it can be. Because, obviously, great Tibetan lamas who pronounce it in the Tibetan way have realizations based on that. So you can’t say that the power of a mantra is established totally on the side of the sound, on the side of the mantra. It arises dependently on the mental continuum, and the attitude, faith, confidence in them, and so on, that the person has. As in the example of the person who brought home a dog’s tooth, and said it was the tooth of the Buddha, to the mother who wanted this from India. So it’s really hard to say what is the special value of the sounds of the mantra. Sanskrit is the revered holy language that all the Buddhists respect. But they do that, I think, based on the system of the Vedas, in which the sound of the Sanskrit language is taken as something very holy, and so the Buddhists inherit that, as well as do the other various other Indian systems. So it’s hard to say.
Can you say the effectiveness and power of the mantra is established by the rhythm, whether you say “benza” or “vajra”? Again you couldn’t say that it’s established from the side of the sound itself. Does that mean that you could say anything?
Participant: Coca Cola.
Alex: Like COCA COLA, COCA COLA. I don’t know that you could pronounce just anything. So then the question becomes: what role does lineage, and the so-called “blessings” of the lineage, have to do with the effectiveness of the mantra? And you’d have to say that it does have a certain role.
“Blessings” is a translation that I don’t particularly like. It’s the word “chinlab” (byin-rlabs); “adhisthana” in Sanskrit. “Adhisthana” is to place something in a higher position: “adhi” means higher, “sthana” is place or situation. So it’s an uplifting of the energy of something. The Tibetans translate it as “chingyilab” (byin-gyis rlabs); “lab” is waves, and with “chingyi,” so waves that make something more brilliant. So, in this sense, inspiring, uplifting, and so on. So that’s why I translate it as “inspiration.” So there’s a certain inspiration that has been – or a certain type of…
Now what type of phenomenon is this chinlab, is this inspiration? Is it a form of physical matter? Is it a way of being aware of something? That’s a difficult question. That’s a very difficult question. I think it would probably have to be a nonconcomitant [noncongruent] affecting variable (ldan-min ’du-byed), this thing that’s in the “neither” category. That again is something which is imputed on the basis of the various lamas who have recited it, and practiced it, and achieved attainments with it, and so on. So that you would infer that there is an uplifting of it.
There’s probably some energy involved, but I don’t know – I mean, where is that energy? If it’s an energy, where is the energy of the blessings or the inspiration? Is it in – well, it can’t be in the category. We were speaking about categories, the audio category of the sound of OM MANI PADME HUM, that no matter who says it, in whatever voice, it’s still OM MANI PADME HUM. And no matter whether they pronounce it OM MANI PADME HUM [silly voice] or OM MANI PADME HUM [normal voice], it’s still OM MANI PADME HUM. So the energy can’t be in the category. Is it in each individual sound that each individual person makes? I don’t know. You’d have to say it’s an imputation. How does it work? Is it on the side of the category? Well the category is just a mental construct – how could it be on the side of the category? A category doesn’t exist somewhere up in the sky. Where is it? Is it in the sounds that I individually make? I don’t know. If you didn’t know that there was a lineage of OM MANI PADME HUM, and of people who practiced that, would you still receive the lineage inspiration from reciting it? These would be very interesting questions to debate. I have no idea what the answer would be. What do you think?
Participant: I would say yes.
Participant2: I would say no.
Alex: You would say yes, and you would say no. So you have to give a reason for your yes and a reason for your no.
Alex: So she’s saying if you are open enough and receptive enough, then you would receive the inspiring energy. But where is that energy? Where’s it coming from?
Participant: I don’t know where it is, but I…
Alex: Well, you have to say where it is, and where it’s coming from in order to receive it.
Participant: From the person who is speaking this…
Alex: From anyone. So the tape recorder? The parrot who says it? So is it in the sound or not in the sound? Well here I think... Well, what’s your reasoning for saying no?
Participant2: Well I wouldn’t say it’s on the side of the syllable itself, that the power comes with it. But, rather, with believing that it has a value – that you maybe know about the Buddha-figure that is associated with it, etc. So I could imagine that certain sounds have certain effects. Like we have vowels… Some parts of your breathing system resonate a certain way, and that certainly helps to shape the energies. Different vowel sounds resonate in different areas.
Alex: Right. But you’re talking about – this is something else.
Participant2: You could make words up that also have these sounds and that have the same sort of effect. You could have a scientific study on people who know nothing about Buddhism, and give one group this mantra and the other group these made-up mantras.
Alex: Okay. So what he’s saying is that... Well your original position was “no,” though. [laughter] So you have just given reasons for why “yes.” I mean, the reasons that he gave was that the sound itself would have a certain healing quality, in terms of certain vowels. If you make a certain vowel, the energy’s a little bit more sharp; if you say another vowel – like AAAH, rather than EEEE – it’s more open, and so on, so it would affect your energies. But we’re not talking about this; that was the previous topic of discussion. Because the sound could shape your energy, and of course having certain confidence in it would help. We’re talking about so-called “lineage blessings.”
Now, lineage blessings. If I make up something, let’s say I make up a sadhana. Some of my friends in a more sarcastic mood made up a Colonel Sanders sadhana for Kentucky Fried Chicken, in which you had Colonel Sanders – you imagine yourself as Colonel Sanders – holding up a fried chicken leg and reciting the mantra, “It’s finger licking good.” And you imagined yourself as the Colonel doing this, and this was the Colonel Sanders sadhana. [laughter] They were very naughty in those days. Very sacrilegious.
Would that have lineage blessings if I taught it to you, and you taught it to your students? So where do lineage blessings or lineage inspiration – what does it derive from? I’ll give you a hint: from the intention. I had perfectly good – well, maybe we had very sarcastic, naughty intentions with the Colonel Sanders sadhana, but we could have had very good intentions.
Participant: That’s not a matter of good or bad intentions…
Participant2: Extraterrestrials are coming and it’s very good intentions to prevent damage from them, so…
Alex: Right. So now we’re getting even more into the fantasy realm. Extraterrestrials are invading and they want to learn our technologies, so we download into their database the Colonel Sanders sadhana rather than the Chenrezig sadhana to sabotage them. Putting a virus into the Borg main computer. That is not quite what we’re talking about.
Participant: I can think how the blessings of lineage are a dependent arising phenomenon because you need a basis for labeling them as a correct lineage. That means that there should be an unbroken lineage from Buddha Shakyamuni, and the masters should have realizations. But, on top of that, you have to believe there’s a good connection between these masters. Then you have to generate belief…
Alex: Very good. You win the prize. Very good. So it arises dependently, the lineage inspiration (or blessings) arises dependently on the fact that there’s an unbroken line of succession of practitioners going all the way back to the Buddha – or somebody who had a vision of Vajradhara, or whatever, of a Buddha – and these various masters have gained the realizations based on this practice. Not just that they recited the Colonel Sanders sadhana going back to somebody for two centuries, or a hundred centuries, or whatever, but that it actually worked. And then there needs to be confidence in it, whether you know it or not, that every single being – and I can recite their names – got the realizations. But you do that in the sadhana practices. You recite the whole lineage and ask for inspiration from each individual person in the lineage. That’s part of the long sadhanas. And that there is light coming down from each of these – there’s usually like a big long line of them going up from the top of your head, and they each dissolve into each other, and so on, and then it dissolves into you. So you get – you imagine that the inspiration of the lineage comes into you. But it has to be based on the fact that people actually did gain realizations from it.
So it’s a dependently arising phenomenon. So you need to bring in the whole understanding of voidness of cause and effect, of how something like this can affect us. So, as you said, there needs to be a proper basis for labeling a lineage. And then, based on that, you can label onto the lineage, inspiration from the lineage – in terms of an effect that comes from it, understanding that inspiration doesn’t exist in an unmanifest form.
Now, remember, go back to Shantideva – the voidness of cause and effect. That the result, the inspiration, doesn’t exist sitting inside the cause waiting for it to come out. And it isn’t that the cause and the result are totally unrelated to each other, either. Or that the result is already existing at the time of the cause, or that it’s totally nonexistent at the time of the cause. So one always has to bring in this factor. So what makes for a mantra to have a certain power from a lineage inspiration is that it comes from a valid source and it has been effective over time.
Participant: And having the knowledge that it’s actually so.
Alex: And having the knowledge that it’s actually so. You have to know
Question: I mean, if you were to give that mantra to an African tribe somewhere, would it have an effect?
Alex: So the question is: Do you have to know that there is a lineage, and have confidence, and so on? If you just gave this mantra – I will use a politically more correct example than you used – if we just give that to a random group of people who have no familiarity with Buddhism, would it have the same effect?
No. Because also part of the factors that will affect the result, the dependent arising of the result, will also be confidence, knowledge of the masters. The more that we know the biographies, the liberating biographies – “namtar” (rnam-thar) is the Tibetan word for biography. “Namtar” means liberating. It’s from the word “tarpa” (thar-pa) which means liberation. So it’s a liberating thing. When you know about that, you gain inspiration, even more inspiration. So if we know about these lineage masters, you know: I have familiarity with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his late teachers, and I know what they practiced, and they achieved their attainments based on this kind of practice, so they must have been doing something right. It gives you more inspiration, more confidence in the practice. So if we know the biographies going all the way back, that gives us even more confidence. So this is certainly going to have an effect. But somebody just giving it to a random group of people to recite, they’re not going to have that factor in the causal mixture of things that bring about the result.
Question: What is an unbroken lineage? It can’t be that nothing has been changed. But it’s the unbrokenness of insights. Because, just as with the mantra OM MANI PEME HUM, that changed from OM MANI PADME HUM. So is that now a broken lineage?
Alex: Right. Now this is a very crucial question. What does it mean, an unbroken lineage? Because if the Indians pronounce it OM MANI PADME HUM and the Tibetans pronounce it OM MANI PEME HUM, so there’s been a change, is the lineage broken or unbroken?
Well this is the crucial issue when it comes to reviving the bhikshuni ordination lineage, which is a very serious topic that the Tibetans are addressing themselves to – at least His Holiness the Dalai Lama is, and under his pushing the abbots and so on have to consider it as well. There’s the eighth big conference on it in Hamburg just before His Holiness’s teachings. They’re doing a lot of serious research on it. The bhikshuni (that’s the full nun’s ordination) lineage within the Tibetan line, it was broken and so they want to revive it. So can you revive it? Is it a broken lineage? Is it an unbroken lineage? What do you do? And they don’t seem to have come up with a very clear answer to this. So it’s not a simple issue.
So I would think, similarly, if… There was a practice that Guru Rinpoche did – this is a great Indian master who brought tantra systems to Tibet for the first time – and the times were not ripe, and he buried them, hid them away. And then centuries later they were found again. Is that a broken lineage? That there are many centuries that passed when nobody was practicing it, and now it’s revived again. Does it have an unbroken lineage or a broken lineage? I don’t know how to answer that question. Obviously the Tibetans don’t consider that a broken lineage.
Question: What about Asian Hinayanists?
Alex: Asian Hinayanists are not practicing tantra, so it doesn’t matter what they think concerning the lineage. Could it matter on an overall thing? Well we have to go back to Shantideva. Shantideva was very clear. He said that any reason that you use for refuting the authenticity of the Mahayana scriptures would apply equally well to disputing the authenticity of your Hinayana scriptures; so that’s not a valid argument. None of the Hinayana scriptures were written down. They were all passed on by word of mouth – which assumes that everybody had perfect memory for 400 years and got every word correct. And so the Mahayana took a little bit longer before they wrote it down, but what’s the difference? There is no difference in terms of using that argument to try to refute the authenticity of the texts. So that’s hard to say, what actually an unbroken lineage is. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Unbroken lineage, does that mean… I don’t know. I can’t give an answer, I’m sorry. But obviously that’s an important issue from the Tibetan point of view. That’s why they always have oral transmission (lung) – because they want the unbroken lineage. And the oral transmission of a text or practice does not require – now here’s an interesting point – that doesn’t require any realization. Is it the same with the tantra practice? Probably.
Do you get the blessings? I don’t know. Are there different levels of blessings? However, I think I told you the example of this text by Tsongkhapa, The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po), which is Tsongkhapa’s most complicated text on the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka explanations of voidness. The most complicated. The most difficult. And there’s the lineage of it that goes back to Tsongkhapa. And then there’s a special lineage that the old Serkong Rinpoche’s father had, because he had a vision of Tsongkhapa who gave him another transmission of it. And so the old Serkong Rinpoche had this transmission, this oral lineage, and he hesitated and waited and didn’t give it to His Holiness, because he wanted to be able to explain something new to His Holiness that nobody had explained to him before. And so for some reason he didn’t give the oral lineage to His Holiness, and then he died.
And then the young Serkong Rinpoche (the reincarnation) comes along, and he would like that transmission. And, try as we may, we could not find any Tibetan who had the oral transmission of that. I had it. Serkong Rinpoche had given it to me and a couple other Westerners, but the young Serkong Rinpoche had the strong connection with me – he wanted it from me. I had never even read the text, let alone studied it. But I heard the old Serkong Rinpoche recite it. And not only did he recite it, he recited it from memory – about 250 pages long – and he recited it from memory at super speed. So a very special oral transmission, really in the tradition of ancient India, which is where this custom comes from: that nothing was written down, and people recited the text from memory. And so I asked His Holiness, “Young Serkong Rinpoche wants this oral transmission from me. I’ve never read the text, let alone studied it. Am I qualified to give it?” And His Holiness said “yes.” I heard it from the old Serkong Rinpoche, and so I practiced and practiced saying it out loud, reading it out loud, until I could do it in a not so embarrassing way. And then I went to India and I gave it to him, read it out loud to him.
Question: How often did you hear it from Serkong Rinpoche?
Alex: Once. I heard it from Serkong Rinpoche once.
Question: And could you catch the content?
Alex: Could I catch the content? No. My eyes could not go quickly enough over the Tibetan text to keep up with the speed at which he recited it from memory. And he had his attendant test him to see whether or not he made any mistakes, and in 250 pages I think he made two words that were out of order or something like that. He recited this every day as part of his daily practice, in addition to everything else that he did. It is the most difficult, complicated text that Tsongkhapa wrote, about the different philosophical views within Madhyamaka concerning voidness. The most complicated, difficult text that he wrote.
So do you have to have had an unbroken lineage of realization from it? Well I think there are probably different levels of transmission. In Nyingma, they talk about lineage transmission of recognizing the nature of the mind. That, I don’t think just is based on hearing somebody say, you know, “Jan, here’s your mind,” and then Jan says, “Jorge, here’s your mind. Jorge, meet your mind. Mind, meet Jorge.” It’s not like that. So, in that case, I think it’s based on some realization. But for an oral transmission, and to have the unbroken lineage of that, that’s just based on having heard the words, and it comes from the Indian custom that nothing was written down. So before somebody could memorize it – the only way they could memorize it is hearing somebody else recite it. And so they had to be sure that the other person remembered it correctly.
So this topic of lineage and inspiration, and so on, it’s a very difficult topic. A very difficult topic. And probably there are different levels of it. So can that be unbroken? Or can it be broken? An oral transmission broken? His Holiness often says that there are certain texts that there is no oral transmission anymore. His Holiness could read it, but that’s not going to restore the oral transmission lineage.
Alex: She’s asking if the oral transmission – if you hear it from the teacher, and then you are obliged to repeat it until you are able to repeat it also by memory without making any mistakes? That would have been in ancient India before any of the texts were written down. But in the modern day? No. You don’t recite it. So Ulla was saying that if we speak here, not in terms of the transmission of a text, but if we speak in terms of a transmission of a mantra, then you hear the sound and you repeat the sound. Well certainly you repeat the sound if you’re going to give the lineage to somebody else.
Participant: Originally the question was: where is the energy?
Alex: Where is the energy? Does the energy come from the sound itself? Well what’s the difference between: I heard my teacher say it and I recite it, and I recite it by myself? Okay. So then this is what is essential here, Ulla’s saying, is that your recitation of it is based on having heard it, and it’s not just making it up yourself. That’s true. You learn a word in a foreign language. You don’t really know how to pronounce it. You see the spelling of an English word, for example, and it’s so bizarre. Like the word “ought” – “you ought to do that”; O U G H T – you have absolutely no idea how to pronounce that, and so you would have had to hear how it’s pronounced in order to be able to pronounce it correctly. That’s true. That’s true.
So, anyway, let us not spend further time on this topic. But you can see that even within tantra there’s a great deal of material that could be debated. And in the tantra colleges, at least in the Gelugpa tradition, they debate various topics – I don’t know if they debate this specific topic – but they debate various topics in order to try to understand what’s going on. So that not only do they learn the rituals, not only do they learn the technical aspects of making powdered mandalas, and doing all of this sort of stuff, and studying the texts, but they also debate the content of it so that they can really understand. So I think this gives us a little bit of a taste of how open to interpretation and not clear many of these topics are.
I think transmission, and lineage, and so on, is one of those. It’s a very difficult point, but one which is emphasized very much by the Tibetans, and is part of the whole larger topic of the relation to the spiritual teacher. Because the main purpose of the relation with the spiritual teacher is inspiration. And in tantra – to get back to our main topic here – in tantra the role of the spiritual teacher is emphasized even greater than in any other aspect of the Buddhist practice. That there’s no way that you can practice tantra successfully without the proper relationship with the tantric master.
So what is the role of the tantric master? The role of any spiritual mentor (we can use that term) is, first of all, to transmit vows. Now we saw in our discussion of lineage and referencing this to the bhikshuni vows, we saw that an unbroken lineage of the vows – in the case of nuns, the full nun’s ordination – is very important. So similarly it’s important in tantra practice. This is one of the reasons why, before giving a tantric initiation, the tantric master has to have done the full retreat, not necessarily the three-year retreat, but the full retreat of that Buddha-figure; done the fire puja ritual at the end of it to make up for any mistakes; and then done (each time before they give the initiation) the self-initiation, which is a certain ritual practice in which they imagine, basically, giving the initiation to themselves – of course there are various variations on how that’s done, but they receive the initiation and renew their tantric vows.
Question: What is an initiation?
Alex: Initiation, that’s the next topic. They imagine that they’ve renewed their tantric vows so that they can give them purely, a half hour later, to the disciples. That’s absolutely essential. You can’t just sit down and give an initiation; there’s all of this preparation that you have to do beforehand.
So the tantric master gives vows, gives an initiation. So what is an initiation? “Initiation” – that’s a Western word. Initiation. The Sanskrit word…
Participant: In the announcement, it says we can take part in your seminar without preliminary initiation.
Alex: This is what I am about to explain. So what is translated as “initiation?” “Initiation” is a translation, not a very good one, of the Sanskrit word “abhishekha.” “Abhishekha” comes from the verb “to sprinkle”; so it’s sprinkling seeds, like you put seeds into the ground. So you sprinkle seeds in the ground, or you sprinkle water on it, in order to help it to grow. And the Tibetans translate it with the word “wang” (dbang), which means “empower,” to give power to something.
So again we have to go back to our initial discussion of basis, path, and result. The basis level, another aspect of this, that we didn’t mention, we just spoke about the samsaric and nirvanic levels of appearance basis, path, and result; but we can also speak about this whole topic of basis, path, and result in the context of Buddha-nature (sangs-rgyas-kyi rigs). Buddha-nature are those factors which will allow us – anybody, any limited being – to become a Buddha. And there are many divisions of that. There are the evolving Buddha-nature factors (rgyas-’gyur-gyi rigs), which are things which will grow and grow, and transform into the various bodies of a Buddha: the physical appearance, the mind of a Buddha, the speech of a Buddha, and so on, the compassion of a Buddha, etc. – these are evolving Buddha factors. There are the abiding Buddha-nature factors (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs), which is the voidness of a Buddha’s mind which allows for transformation to take place. And then there’s a third type of Buddha-nature, which is the fact that a mental continuum can be affected by inspiration – by this word “blessings.” It can be uplifted. Remember “adhisthana” means uplifting. The word for blessing can be “inspired.” Its energy level can be uplifted, or influenced, by other factors. The sources of inspiration, the Three Jewels of Refuge, the gurus – so that’s looking from above our position. Or suffering sentient beings – looking in the other direction – that can inspire us to develop more and more compassion. “I have to achieve enlightenment in order to help them.” So you’re inspired by them.
The initiation or empowerment is intended to activate and energize, through inspiration as one of the factors, these Buddha-nature factors. That is the point of the empowerment. And so in the empowerment there are… You need to have – of course there needs to be the lineage, the inspiration of the lineage. There’s the whole environment within which it’s done, so that gives a certain type of inspiration. You are visualizing yourself in the form of various aspects, pure aspects: the place you visualize as a mandala; gurus visualizing themselves as Buddha-figures; you’re visualizing the guru as a Buddha-figure.
And you need to have (within the Gelugpa system) some level of conscious experience of participating in this, trying your best to do some of the visualizations – so you have to be a little bit familiar already with the ritual – and a conscious experience of voidness with a blissful state of mind, to whatever level of capacity you have. Things don’t exist in some impossible way. Like the enlightenment of the guru is up there, and I could never become like that, or I’m this poor miserable creature down here – when you realize that this is absurd, there’s no such thing as that. So that’s the very simple understanding of voidness. And you feel happy about that. That’s enough. Something.
So you need some conscious experience – that’s from your side. And from the side of the teacher, the teacher has some sort of conscious experience of what they’re doing. And as a result there is the – what is called the “planting of more seeds.” So that’s the sprinkling of seeds from newer experiences, and a strengthening of what’s there already in terms of Buddha-nature. That, together with taking vows, is the essence of an initiation. No vows, there’s no initiation. And no conscious experience, there’s no initiation. So just sitting there, you get – some people call it a “blessing” initiation – you get some inspiration, perhaps, just from being there, but it’s not really affecting your Buddha-nature qualities.
So the point of the initiation is to strengthen, awaken, fortify these Buddha-nature qualities through this inspiration, which is what we were talking about with lineage – unbroken inspiration. So it’s a very important topic, actually, within tantra. And the teacher then – now this gets back to seeing the good qualities and not complaining about the bad qualities of the teacher. That means seeing the teacher as a Buddha, having examined very well the qualifications of the teacher. So if you’re always seeing, visualizing, the teacher as a Buddha, with only good qualities, without stupidly denying the ordinary level of the teacher, with the shortcomings or whatever, but if you’re able to focus on that with a teacher, then that enables you to realize, “Hey, I can focus on that with myself. I can focus on that with everybody.”
Question: You mentioned the basis, the path, and the result. So that is the result of it?
Alex: No. She’s asking about the basis, path, and result. No. This is the pathway. The pathway is the practice of doing this. The result is that you actually become a Buddha. What you get from the initiation is an uplifting, so that you have some idea of what the result might be like, so that you can aim for it. And tantra practice is called: “practicing now similar to the result of what we want to achieve.” So we imagine now that we have four purities, it’s explained in the Gelugpa system. Pure appearance of ourselves and everybody, as Buddha-figures. Pure environment, as a mandala. Pure activity – so that’s when you imagine lights going out, and so on, helping all beings and coming back in. Like what a Buddha would do, because a Buddha doesn’t have to do anything. Just by a Buddha’s enlightening influence (’phrin-las) – here we have another term. By a Buddha’s enlightening influence; that’s sometimes called “Buddha-activity.” A Buddha doesn’t have to do anything and spontaneously, effortlessly accomplishes everything. In other words, just by the influence of a Buddha, other people are positively influenced. Just being in the presence of a Buddha or a great lama calms people down, for example; it energizes them to be more alert and so on.
Participant: If you can just go back. You mentioned the four purities…
Alex: So the four purities. So I was explaining the third one here. The purity of appearances of ourselves and all beings. The purity of the environment, as a mandala. The purity of our actions; so this is what I was explaining now, that we imagine we’re able to act like a Buddha. And purity of enjoyment. Enjoyment, that we are able to experience happiness or bliss in a nondisturbing way, in a pure way, without being attached to it and so on. Because, as I mentioned very briefly, in tantra we make use of a happy blissful state of mind to help us to get to a more subtle level.
And so in tantra we imagine making offerings. This is a very large part of the tantra ritual – in which you make offerings, and there’s the purification of the offerings, and so on. And you offer it with a generous happy state of mind. Imagining that, whether your offering it to the Buddhas or to all beings, that they are enjoying it: “May they be happy.” We also, in the Gelugpa tradition, make offerings to ourselves as the Buddha-figure. We imagine that we’re able to enjoy it without attachment, without greed, and stuff like that. Without any interference; not worrying that the food offering is going to make us fat, or anything like that. And by being able to experience an elevated happy blissful state of mind in a nondisturbing way, it will enable us to use the advantages of that state of mind for being able to focus it on voidness. So these are the four purities that we practice.
You imagine yourself as a Buddha-figure. You imagine everybody else around you in some sort of pure form. You imagine a pure environment. You imagine – what’s added here is that your speech is mantra, so you recite a mantra. And as you recite mantra, you imagine that lights go out from you and purify everybody, eliminate their suffering, transform them into Buddha-figures, give them enlightenment. You make offerings to them. You experience this with a happy state of mind. These are the essential features in tantra practice. Preceded of course with an understanding of voidness, before you generate this appearance as a Buddha-figure. And the motivation – bodhichitta – and all these other things: refuge, reaffirming your vows, etc. That’s the essence of tantra practice, in general. Anuttarayoga tantra adds a little bit more on top of that.
Question: Why are the four purities more powerful than sutra practice? What kind of practice is sutra practice?
Alex: Sutra practices are ordinary Buddhist practice. What we are familiar with.
Question: Studying the sutras?
Alex: It is not just studying the sutras. It is to practice what is taught in the sutras – during meditation and in daily life. So the sutras teach us about concentration. They teach us about love and compassion. They teach us the four noble truths, etc. And in the sutras there’s also visualization.
Question: It includes tantra practice?
Alex: Tantra practice is not in the sutras themselves. It’s a different classification. The difference here… Sutra practice will have visualization in it. When you look at the Mahayana, some of the Mahayana sutras talk about pure lands, and teaching – Avatamsaka – all these sort of things. So it has visualization. You do visualization for achieving shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind. You visualize a Buddha in front of you. So there’s visualization in sutra as well.
The defining characteristic of tantra practice – one of them – the special defining characteristic is you visualize yourself as a Buddha-figure. That, you don’t have in sutra. So the purities here, the main one is – now that’s an interesting question – visualizing yourself as a Buddha-figure, and… Well certainly one is trying to achieve liberation and enlightenment, but here we’re talking about visualizing oneself in a pure form – the four purities – visualizing the environment as a mandala, visualizing your activities being like that of a Buddha, and imagining that you enjoy happiness in a pure way like a Buddha would enjoy it.
Now the doubt came in my mind: in the manner of study in Nalanda monastery in India, you imagine when you receive teachings that you were in a pure land like arya bodhisattvas, that you were like arya bodhisattvas, the teacher as a Buddha, and that you are receiving teachings like in a pure land as an arya bodhisattva would from a Sambhoghakaya Buddha. Is that tantra? I’m not sure whether or not that was influenced by tantra, which also you might have had there in Nalanda, or if that was a sutra thing based on – like pure land sutras, and so on. That, I’m not sure of. But in any case, I think it’s time to take our tea break, and then we’ll continue.
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